Why wait for catastrophe?

Why wait for catastrophe?

Thirteen is an unlucky number for the professional marine salvage industry in the U.S. It has taken 13 years for the Coast Guard to publish its proposed salvage regulations - and now those regulations have been postponed for three more years.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was the legislative response to a major shipping casualty within our borders. OPA-90 required tank ships to have plans in place to respond to accidents. The legislation envisaged that ships would have both salvage contractors and oil-spill cleanup contractors standing by. The Coast Guard was quick to provide regulations for oil-spill cleanup but has yet to implement them for salvage and marine firefighting. Will it take another catastrophe to get them enacted?

The nightmare scenario of a laden ship exploding or sinking in a major ship channel, blocking a port for weeks or months is well-known. The economic consequences are dire. The U.S. needs a National Salvage Policy now. This need has been known for years. It has taken on particular urgency since the Sept. 11 attacks, when salvage contractors were immediately called upon to help transport people from the chaos of New York and to quickly build terminals to remove the millions of tons of mangled steel and debris from Ground Zero.

This country has learned a great deal since then. We learned that we need to think differently about security and our exposure to terrorism, but we must not forget about response preparedness. Inevitably, we will be required to respond. We must consider and train for the specialized response the maritime environment requires. An example is ship fires. Unlike a land-based structure fire where firefighters are trained to open the structure up and spray water throughout, a ship fire often requires less water, containment and oxygen starvation - very different philosophies and actions. The professional salvage industry can respond to such incidents and can help mitigate disasters.

In 1982, the National Research Council concluded that Congress "should update the national statement of salvage policy to recognize the vital role that salvage plays in minimizing the public consequences of maritime casualties, and to harmonize the Salvage Act with the laws on intervention and pollution response." Despite that recommendation, there has been no change in the national salvage policy in the last decade.

When the Research Council made its recommendation, no one thought of terrorists flying planes into our nation's most stalwart structures. Now that we've lived such attacks, we are forewarned about the vulnerabilities of marine transportation. There is little argument today against the need to protect national security and to ensure that marine casualties produce minimal economic disruption and environmental damage.

In fairness to the Coast Guard, its mission has been greatly expanded since Sept. 11. Few realize that it was called upon to assist when anthrax was discovered in Washington mailrooms, in recovery efforts after Hurricane Isabel and during this year's ricin scare at the Capitol. The Coast Guard's expanded mission includes homeland security as well as marine security.

Coast Guard captains of the port are developing, reviewing and updating area maritime security plans required by the Department of Homeland Security. The marine-salvage industry's response to a terrorist attack on a maritime target is a critical element in such efforts. Salvage companies, through the American Salvage Association, have offered their support in creation of those security plans. "The threats from terrorism facing the U.S. today constitute a new reality that has created a strategic demand for a robust salvage industry as a key component of national security," wrote Coast Guard Capt. Joseph Saboe, from whose desk these proposed regulations will be launched.

The U.S. salvage industry, well-trained and ready to help, will be the private sector's first responders following any future terrorist attacks against the U.S. maritime domain, and will prove extremely beneficial in minimizing damage and expediting recovery. The need for salvors in a post-attack situation will likely require a combined effort by the salvage community. By bringing the salvage community to the Coast Guard maritime security table, all parties will be cognizant of plans of action and better equipped to respond.

Completing the current proposed salvage regulations would help to create the National Salvage Policy that was recommended more than 20 years ago and is needed by this country. Urge the Coast Guard to publish the proposed regulations and make 13 this country's new lucky number.

Richard B. Fairbanks is president of Titan Maritime LLC and of the American Salvage Association. He can be contacted at (954) 929-5200, or via e-mail at df@titansalvage.com.