Issues with SMFF responder verification means there are gaps in actual capabilities, leading to inadequate response and increased pollution
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) was written to address response gaps realised after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The Act’s intent was to create a regulatory framework to prevent, respond to, and pay for oil spills in US waters.
An immediate result was the formation of oil spill response organisations (OSROs), which provide shipowners and operators with response capabilities in all US captain-of-the-port zones.
“The US is a global leader in spill response and preparedness with OSROs having significant caches of equipment, dedicated vessels on standby and large response teams spread across the nation,” says Resolve Marine compliance services general manager Todd Duke.
“A large part of this success is due to the US Coast Guard (USCG)’s National Strike Force Co-ordination centre completing annual preparedness assessment verifications to ensure OSROs follow OPA-90 regulations.”
In 2008 and 2013, the USCG completed Salvage and Marine Firefighting (SMFF) regulations under the OPA-90 umbrella for tank and non-tank vessels operating in US waters.
These regulations require shipowners and operators to identify resource partners that meet the 15 salvage and four marine fire-fighting response criteria in all captain-of-the-port zones. “Initially, there were hundreds of companies claiming to have salvage and marine fire-fighting capabilities and many were later exposed as shell companies without an office or equipment in the US,” says Mr Duke. “Soon after the passage of the final rule in 2008 only five companies remained capable of meeting the 19 SMFF criteria.” Today, due to commercial pressures, three companies remain with 99% of the SMFF market.
As the USCG began drafting SMFF regulations, environmentally concerned industry participants hoped the USCG would require SMFF responders to achieve the same standard of readiness as OSROs.
“It was expected that appropriate vetting of equipment and personnel would be carried out on a regular basis, to ensure effective response when a casualty occurred,” says Mr Duke. “Instead, the USCG put the responsibility for SMFF responder verification on the vessel response plan holder.”
Mr Duke asks, is appropriate vetting taking place and are the spirit of the regulations being met? Are the SMFF providers continually investing in their personnel and equipment to meet the USCG regulation’s planning standards?
“In general, vessel response plan holders are not conducting onsite verifications and are instead relying on SMFF provider capability claims,” he explains. “The result is an undetected gap in actual capability, leading to inadequate response, increased pollution, and a resultant drain on the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.”
In the absence of proper vetting, some SMFF response providers are reaping the benefits of being a listed responder without carrying any overhead in the form of US-based response teams and assets.
“The low overhead strategy allows some providers to waive retainer fees in the hopes of attracting market share,” says Mr Duke. “The more market share, the higher the probability of securing a lucrative response operation. Salvors should be involved in preventing incidents through quick response and early intervention, as opposed to being monetarily incentivised to see that they happen.”
In contrast to the low-overhead, high-volume approach is the strategy of quality response, where response equipment is owned, maintained, tested regularly and response personnel are trained through regular exercises and actual responses.
“Inadequate oversight and accountability frees vessel response plan holders to seek the least expensive SMFF provider option,” says Mr Duke, “and is driving the SMFF market towards minimal investment in capabilities in order to sell services at minimum cost.”
He says a new verification mechanism is required to ensure SMFF responders can meet the USCG SMFF regulation response times. Otherwise, “the inevitable result is declining nationwide SMFF response capability and an increased probability of SMFF incidents and environmental damage” says Mr Duke.
“Is there a better way to ensure the SMFF response industry avoids this downward spiral?” he asks. The two options that have succeeded in other maritime applications are requiring USCG on-site verification (the OSRO model) and using USCG-certified third parties to conduct verifications (the Subchapter M model).
“So far, the USCG has resisted the first option, although the second option of relying on third-party vetting certainly has its advantages,” says Mr Duke.
One certainty is if the USCG begins identifying gaps in coverage, response companies will find themselves filling those gaps with additional equipment and personnel.
“The nationwide SMFF response capability will increase, the waters around the US will be safer and the remaining SMFF providers will be better off in the end,” he says. “All these improvements will benefit the US maritime industry and Americans who value a clean environment and safe marine transportation system.”
Riviera Maritime Media’s ITS Salvage Webinar Week is being held 15 June 2021 – use this link for more details and to register