SHIP INSPECTIONS UP IN HAMPTON ROADS

SHIP INSPECTIONS UP IN HAMPTON ROADS

Seventeen months after leaving Dominion Terminal Associates in Newport News, the Cypriot cargo ship Trade Daring sank at a Brazilian pier.

Workers there were loading the 22-year-old vessel with iron ore in December when the hull cracked, buckled and moments later settled more than 70 feet underwater.It's the kind of disaster that could cripple a coal exporter like DTA - and the kind of disaster the Coast Guard is trying harder to prevent.

COAST GUARD ACTS

Last May, the Coast Guard stepped up inspections of the hundreds of foreign-flagged vessels that call at U.S. harbors each month. It feared that shipping companies - caught in a prolonged slump - were making do with poorly maintained vessels rather than investing in costly repairs or new vessels.

"I think that what we were seeing was a general decay of ships, simply

because the bulk fleets and the tanker fleets were not buying a lot of new ships," said the president of the local Pilots Association, Capt. Rick Amory.

Many of the cargo vessels in use today are between 20 and 30 years old. The new U.S. policy, called port-state control, mirrors those of 15 European countries and Canada, which already had established programs to rid their harbors of unsafe vessels.

U.S.-flagged vessels, which in 1993 accounted for about one in five of the 2,590 ships that visited Hampton Roads, already were subject to extensive annual reviews that often took several days.

DETENTION DETERRENCE

U.S. port-state control inspections focus on everything from the ship's navigational charts to the structural soundness of the hull. The idea is that, rather than risk having their ships detained, owners will maintain the vessels.

So far it's working, said Capt. Amory, whose association is responsible for guiding ships into Hampton Roads.

"I think that the concerns about substandard ships coming here were probably significant up until the Coast Guard started its inspections," he said. "But since the inspections have been taking place, substandard shipping has diminished. There is a greater effort being made on behalf of the ships' owners. Time is money to these shippers."

Much of the inspection centers on living conditions aboard the vessels.

"One of the biggest concerns is for the welfare of the crew on the ship," said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Chris Cataldi, who serves in the Norfolk office. ''Obviously if there were safety items that we knew of and we let the ship go and something happened to the crew, that wouldn't look good for the U.S."

ECONOMIC ENGINE

Inspections also are designed to ensure that marine traffic can continue to move freely through Hampton Roads, a major engine of the area's economic growth. In 1992, the most recent year for which statistics were available, Virginia's ports supported more than 19,800 jobs, most held by residents of Norfolk and Newport News.

Well over a thousand vessels have come through Hampton Roads this year, delivering or loading everything from coal and cocoa beans to massive pieces of machinery. Disabled, just one of those ships could block the harbor's shipping lanes, stopping traffic into and out of Hampton Roads and other inland ports along the James River.

According to the Coast Guard's new policy, each foreign-flagged ship must be inspected at least once a year. However, officers inspect many ships - especially those carrying the flags of nations with lax standards and a history of safety violations - far more often.

15 NATIONS UNDER MICROSCOPE

The Coast Guard has targeted 15 countries as high-risk, including Cyprus, which has the fourth-largest fleet in the world, Honduras, Malta, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

In addition, the Coast Guard has singled out about 80 owners worldwide with a history of operating substandard ships.

Of the ships that came through Hampton Roads during the first half of the year, the Coast Guard inspected nearly 200 - 24 of which it detained for serious safety violations.

"We're averaging about one a week," Cataldi said. That's slightly higher than most other U.S. ports, said Lt. J.R. Crooks, chief of the Coast Guard's vessel safety department.

He attributed Hampton Roads' high detention rate to the fact that low- value commodities like coal make up the vast majority of cargo moving through the port. Since such products aren't worth much per ton, companies may be more likely to risk loading it onto a substandard vessel.

The Emma D.P. Seconda of the Bahamas was stuck here for only a short time, while the crew made minor repairs that included cleaning oil off the deck and fixing a life raft. That ship, which visited both of Newport News' coal terminals this year, was detained for two days before the Coast Guard released it in March.

Others, like the Bahamian-flagged cargo ship Magnolia, had far more serious problems, from rotting lifeboats to damaged firefighting equipment. The Coast Guard found 40 safety violations aboard the Magnolia, bound for the deep-water terminal in Richmond, and demanded that it be repaired before allowing it to continue. "We'd like to make sure that ship never returns to the U.S.," Mr. Crooks said.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

Still, the Magnolia's problems paled in comparison to those of the Taxiarchis, a Greek freighter en route to Canada that limped into Newport News in June 1994 after its engines quit at sea.

"That was the worst ship I've ever seen," said Coast Guard Chief Board Officer Jerry McMillan.

The Taxiarchis, which was detained in Puerto Rico for nearly a month before sailing up the coast, spent nine months moored at a city pier. The costly incident forced the owner to sell the vessel, and its new owners eventually made enough repairs to sail the vessel out of U.S. waters.

"Obviously, more of the vessels we board are in good shape than in poor shape," Mr. Cataldi said. "Still, there is a significant amount that we are concerned with."