Prevention and response

Prevention and response

The recent tragic bombings in London have spurred U.S. decision-makers to ask whether our transportation systems are secure. The U.K.'s quick, clear-headed response has also caused us here in the United States to examine whether we, too, could react in such a professional and efficient manner.

The professional marine salvage industry has engaged in the debate about the security of our ports and waterways and the readiness of our response for many years. The vulnerabilities of the marine transport sector and the devastating impact on the nation from a closure or restriction of any of our major port facilities has been discussed openly for even longer.

If a ship carrying chemicals, petroleum products or even a nonhazardous cargo were to be detonated under a bridge, near a maximum-capacity cruise ship, or at the entrance of a busy shipping channel or major export port, the consequences would be catastrophic - not only for the U.S., but for the world. The repercussions would include the loss of life and the long-range economic impact from the interruption of commodities and materials that move through our ports daily.

After a major marine casualty involving a fire or discharge of hazardous materials, the first responders would likely be our municipal fire departments and local law enforcement. These organizations are not yet trained to safely and effectively respond to marine incidents of this kind.

After the first responders, the next calls would go to the professional marine salvage and transportation industry. They would be asked to respond, just as they were on Sept. 11, 2001, when they helped to ferry stranded people from lower Manhattan and subsequently worked to remove the considerable debris developed during the remediation effort at the World Trade Center.

By the grace of God, better prevention and maybe just luck, the U.S. has not suffered a terrorist attack since Sept. 11, but while prevention is worth the significant strides and efforts Americans have made, we must also consider the need to be fully capable of promptly and effectively responding to an incident in the marine sector.

This then begs the question: Why has the Coast Guard still not published its proposed updated marine firefighting and salvage regulations, which, after a nearly 15-year delay, have been postponed once again?

To its credit, the Coast Guard's modern mission has changed dramatically to now include maritime security. The Coast Guard has been focused on a number of issues, and perhaps that is the reason for delays in a long-awaited National Salvage Policy. These proposed regulations are already written and simply require promulgation. And as we continue to see the debate grow on the appropriate approach to the issue of security in the marine sector, the proposed modifications to existing legislation such as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 are necessary now.

The approach of the marine salvage community has changed through the years. The salvage industry was once based on the value of the hull and cargo and there was very little concern about the environmental impact of a marine casualty. The Exxon Valdez spill and the resulting OPA-90 legislation was a watershed event for the salvage industry. Today, proper oil-spill response equipment and the ability to clean up oil once it hits the water or shorelines are in place and readily available at all U.S. ports.

The oil-spill response industry has much greater shared knowledge to prevent further damage to sensitive marine environments once a spill occurs. The same thing cannot be said, however, when it comes to responding to major marine incidents involving fires, catastrophic loss of large marine assets and shoreside support structures and facilities. Cleanup after the fact is important, but the ability to keep the oil in the ship is often more important. This is the responsibility of the professional marine salvage community.

Shipowners, operators and transporters of sensitive goods need to recognize the value of emergency response service and then help to build a framework to ensure the economic viability of that stand-by service. The Coast Guard's proposed marine firefighting and salvage regulations are a critical first step in that direction. They are right for the marine salvage industry, but, more important, they are right for the country in a time of security uncertainty.

As decision-makers and transportation architects continue to study the security and reliability of our transport systems, let's remember that in the marine sector, "an ounce of response can be worth a pound of prevention."

John Witte Jr. is executive vice president of Donjon Marine Co. in Hillside, N.J., which recently formed an alliance with SMIT Americas to provide compliance and response services as required by OPA-90. He can be contacted at (908) 353-2600, or at john.witte@donjon.com.