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November 15, 1989
Tankers full of trouble

Inspections, Investigations
One ship sank after rust was overlooked

ABOARD THE ARCO ANCHORAGE — Robert Lawlor, the veteran captain of this vessel, pulls no punches in his assessment of the inspectors who certify tankers for the Coast Guard:

"They know nothing about these ships."

Engine-room officer Elmo Wolford, discussing the topic with Lawlor and others in the officers' dining room, chuckles:

"I had a Coast Guard inspector come on board a tanker and ask me where the flame safety lamp is located."

Everyone laughs. A flame safety lamp is what coal miners use to warn of poisonous gases. Open flames aren't allowed near a tanker's explosive cargo.

Lawlor concedes that there are good inspectors, but just when they've been around long enough to do the job properly, they leave for a new post or depart the Coast Guard altogether. "You get to know an inspector, and in four years he's gone," Lawlor says.

Tough talk, but an insightful glimpse into the federal government's guardians of ship safety. Not only do most Coast Guard inspectors and accident investigators change jobs often, their numbers are thinning dramatically and the qualifications of those who remain are suspect.


• Since 1981, the Coast Guard has trimmed 102 inspectors from its ranks — almost a quarter of the force that once roamed the decks of U.S. ships. The cutback nearly erased gains of the late 1970s, when the Coast Guard added 169 inspectors in response to a major spill off the coast of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, U.S. tanker traffic increases every year. In Washington state, that increase averaged 4 percent a year over the past decade.

• goes to the war on drugs. Drug interdiction claims 24 percent of the 1989 Coast Guard budget, compared with 13 percent in 1982. Next year, it will take 25 percent. The budget share for the marine-safety office, which includes inspectors and investigators, has dropped from 8.6 percent to 6.2 percent during the seven-year period.

• The Seattle Coast Guard investigations office has been so backlogged that serious cases have been dropped without being resolved.

• Even with the cutback in inspector slots, the Coast Guard has had trouble keeping those that remain filled with trained inspectors. And the service's training program is graduating only half of the people expected to finish.

• The Coast Guard has no central process

for certifying the qualifications of its inspectors. Most inspectors have little or no experience on merchant vessels. That contrasts with Europe, where the inspectors are former ship captains and chief engineers.


The Coast Guard's overworked inspectors have the crucial job of assessing the health of the U.S. fleet of 11,000 commercial vessels, while also checking foreign rust-buckets trying to enter American ports.

Inspectors are the equivalent of building inspector, fire marshal, quality-control specialist and more. They check plans when U.S. ships are built or remodeled. They inspect ships when they arrive in port, looking at each ship at least once a year. They ensure that tankers are properly equipped to avoid spills. They check hulls for cracks when ships are in drydock. They assess the quality of major repairs.

Joe Angelo, assistant chief of Coast Guard inspections, says some cutback in the number of inspectors was justified: Since 1987, no large merchant ships have been built in the United States, and only 5 percent of the cargo brought into this country is brought in by U.S.-flagged vessels, which are the Coast Guard's prime responsibility.

But like many others, Angelo feels the cuts went too deep. The Coast Guard is overseeing an aging fleet of U.S. tankers — average age, 20 years — and it must closely watch a growing fleet of foreign vessels. Unscheduled inspections in which the Coast Guard might catch dangerous conditions are virtually out of the question.

Ship operators "know right now we are short," says John Felton, recently retired as commander of the Coast Guard marine-safety office in Seattle. "We are limited. If they don't have an inspection scheduled, they are not going to see us."

Seattle's inspection office is an army compared with the Portland office, which has the responsibility of ensuring the health of 80 percent of the tankers that carry Alaskan crude oil. The office in Portland inspects most of the tankers because that is where they go into drydock.

Seattle is one of six training ports for Coast Guard inspectors and has a relatively large staff: nine uniformed inspectors, three civilian inspectors and 16 trainees.

Portland has five uniformed inspectors. This summer, there were only three. At one point in June, those three were expected to examine 10 tankers, a ship and a barge, all at the same time.

Lt. Cmdr. Bill Petersen, supervisor of shipyard inspectors in Portland, worries that fatigue will affect his crew's judgments. Even with the full complement of five, the Portland inspectors sometimes have to work seven days a week on salaries ranging from $25,000 to $40,000 a year.


A shipyard inspection is the most thorough checkup a tanker ever gets, and it happens only once every two years.

Coast Guard inspectors are supposed to check every inch of a drydocked ship's hull for wear, bad welds, cracks and corrosion pits that can eat their way through the thin steel shell that forms the only barrier against oil spills.

An Exxon report estimates that a 250,000-ton tanker, one a little larger than the Exxon Valdez, is likely to have 85,000 pits. Looking for pits and other problems, an inspector must cover 74 acres of steel tanks and 750 miles of welds. An inspector also will see dozens of cracks and must note the serious ones.

The Coast Guard must do all this with starkly limited resources. For instance, Petersen's office lacks a computer terminal through which to get instantaneous, up-to-date information on ships — a device that other Coast Guard offices less involved in ship safety have. Petersen's inspectors must get their information by telephone.

"We are doing an adequate job. We are not doing a great job," Petersen says. "That's not because we don't want to, or we don't try."

"We are proud of the fact that we do more with less," says inspector Lt. j.g. Christopher Roberge.


Doing more with less is a dangerous Coast Guard tradition when it comes to training and retaining ship inspectors.

The Coast Guard has inspected ships since the end of World War II. Oil spills in the mid-1970s caused enough political stir that 169 inspectors were added, but then Reagan administration cutbacks, Coast Guard reorganizations and the drug war took their toll. From a high of 413, the ranks have been cut to 311.

And quality and experience may be as lacking as numbers, says Paul Esbensen, acting chief of marine-accident investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board. Those shortcomings have shown up in NTSB accident investigations, Esbensen says.

In February 1983, the 605-foot U.S. freighter Marine Electric broke into three pieces, capsized and sank in an Atlantic storm, killing 31 of the 34 crewmen on board. The NTSB investigation found that the Coast Guard had inspected the ship four times in the two years before the accident, but failed to detect serious corrosion of the ship's steel.

Esbensen blames not the inspectors but the system for such gross oversights. The facts speak for themselves:

• Nearly all inspectors are Coast Guard Academy graduates with little or no experience on merchant vessels.

• There is no centralized certification process for Coast Guard inspectors. Every port that trains inspectors has a different testing method.

• There is no specialization; inspectors who examine tugs and small passenger vessels are also responsible for 250,000-ton tankers.

• There is a heavy workload. The result is strain and a dropout rate worse than the most troubled high school.

The Coast Guard inspection program planned to graduate 39 of 77 trainees last year but ended up with only 17 graduates. Angelo, of the inspection division, was downcast, saying: "You would reasonably expect that 30 people a year would be graduating from your program."

The lack of new people and the attrition rate among inspectors has left the Coast Guard with huge holes. At one point recently, the inspection program had 50 vacancies.


Felton, commander of the Seattle inspections office, left the Coast Guard last month. He now heads an environmental program for a Puget Sound tug-and-barge company he once regulated.

That makes him part of another controversial Coast Guard tradition: inspectors and administrators moving into private industry. Some critics, such as University of Washington ship-safety expert Edward Wenk, say that tradition is cause for alarm.

Wenk says Coast Guard officers are too often looking for jobs with the firms they regulate, compromising their willingness to come down hard on a company if necessary.

Felton says he avoided a conflict of interest after accepting the job with Foss Maritime Co. by withdrawing himself in his final days from decisions that would affect his future employer. The crossover between the Coast Guard and the maritime industry is unavoidable, he says.

"All my experience is in the marine industry. Once you retire and you want to work someplace else, it's a natural place to go."

In Europe, the tide flows in the opposite direction. The typical European ship inspector is a retired ship captain or chief engineer with at least 10 years' experience at sea.

European inspectors operate under an agreement signed by 11 European countries.

Henk Huibers, a Dutch official who heads the secretariat that oversees the system, says most European inspectors stay on the job for at least 15 years.

Huibers is reluctant to criticize the U.S. program but says one hint of a problem is the fact that when Coast Guard inspectors look over a ship, they rely on a printed checklist. Huibers says "only the inexperienced surveyor would use a checklist. We think a checklist cannot cover all things on board."

He adds: "We have a feeling that professional people know exactly where to look."


Under any conditions — and especially under these — maritime accidents are inevitable. It is then that the Coast Guard's other major function, investigations, comes into play.

That, too, is cause for concern. Case in point: the story of Gregory Tompkins.

By his own description, Tompkins, 42, spent four years investigating accidents for the Coast Guard without proper training until he finally quit this year in disgust.

Before becoming an investigator, Tompkins worked for 12 years in a Coast Guard documents office. With a marketing degree and no time on ships, he was a bona fide paperwork expert.

In 1985, the pay grade for his job was cut. The Coast Guard found him another job in the shorthanded marine-safety investigations division, where the pay was similar to that in his old job.

Tompkins would be called upon to investigate everything from freighter fires to tanker collisions. His preparation: three weeks of classes at a Coast Guard school in Yorktown, Va. He was then assigned to the investigations office in Seattle.

In November 1986, Tompkins was dispatched to investigate a collision of a 200-foot freighter and a 160-foot fishing boat off the Washington coast, an accident that resulted in the death of a 26-year-old Bellevue man.

The investigation was supposed to be done in six months but wasn't closed until early this year.

"Because I was so inexperienced, I didn't know really what to ask, what I was looking for," Tompkins recalls. " `Geez. You guys hit this boat. What happened?' I didn't have any real navigational expertise to draw on."

Tompkins' boss at the time says he tried to toss him easier cases, but the office was so backlogged that Tompkins had 20 files on his desk at a time.

How did it become backlogged? At one point, the Seattle office, which investigates marine accidents in Washington, Idaho and Montana, had a staff of four: a lieutenant commander in charge, a warrant officer, Tompkins and a petty officer. The petty officer had previously worked as a technician doing weather observations.

In July 1988, the office got a new boss, Lt. Cmdr. Larry Lockwood, who came from Houston with a reputation for thoroughness and toughness. He would need both as he made his way through the mountains of unresolved cases.

One such case involved a seaman who attacked a shipmate with a straight razor when an apparent drug deal went bad in June 1986. The investigation wasn't started in Seattle for a year. Lockwood, after reviewing the file, was forced to close the case a year and a half later, unresolved, with this comment written on the record:

"It appears clear that there were serious offenses involved in this case that should have been followed up on promptly. However, at this late date, it would be very difficult to successfully pursue any action."

Today, Lockwood still has a staff of only three investigators. They are more experienced, and he insists: "At our present level we are able to satisfactorily investigate what I consider to be the most critical areas of our responsibility."


In an effort to ease its workload, the Coast Guard recently decided to farm out some of its duties, but some fear that may only increase the safety risks.

The delegated duties — checking plans on new and remodeled ships — were turned over to the American Bureau of Shipping.

The ABS is the oldest of a growing number of nonprofit organizations known as classification societies. These societies inspect ships for owners and insurers, and certify that they are safe and seaworthy. Their fees are paid by the ship owners, and they answer to no one else.

That troubles Arthur McKenzie, a New York-based consultant who assesses the safety of tankers. McKenzie doesn't doubt the qualifications of the inspectors who work for ABS and other major classification societies. But he does question the wisdom of a system he sees as having the fox guard the hen house.

"These classification societies are setting standards in a little dream world of their own," McKenzie says. "They don't have the public involved at all. They must be overseen by public officials."

Others are concerned because classification societies compete for clients, and smaller, less-qualified societies are cropping up around the world. Typically, they offer lax scrutiny to ship owners who are willing to pay their fees.

ABS' clients include a quarter of the world's tanker fleet, says spokesman Tom Tucker. Tucker acknowledged that his company has felt the competition, but the only effect has been that it gets "tarred with the same brush" as the smaller, less-qualified societies.

But even ABS has had its problems. The ship that broke up and sank off Virginia in 1983 also was inspected by ABS, and their people also misjudged the condition of the hull, according to the NTSB.

Harry Keefe, a maritime insurance executive in New York, says classification societies should be regulated and there should be fewer of them. Ship inspections, he says, are not a place for open-market competition.

But the trend is going the other way.

"Societies are under terrible pressure to tell owners they don't have to make repairs, and so forth, to keep them happy. That's the conflict," says Guy E.C. Maitland, shipping representative for the West African nation of Liberia, which has registered more U.S. ships than any other foreign country.


There is yet another disturbing trend in the area of ship inspections: Around the world, small nations are offering their flags - and their lax safety requirements — to ship owners in exchange for fee payments.

Among the newest ship-registering nations are Malta, Cyprus and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

More than 400 ships are registered under the flag of Vanuatu, which relies on classification societies to perform its inspections.

Such as they are.

"We have a very simple inspection," says Vanuatu shipping representative Clayton Wentworth. "We inspect when a ship owner doesn't pay our telex bill. Then we know they're not good guys."

The next ship that spills oil in Washington waters could easily be foreign-flagged. More than 100 foreign-flagged tankers visited here in the past two years, sailing in from such oil sources as Indonesia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. They carried 17 different flags and were rated by more than eight different classification societies.

The London-based Salvage Association, one of the older and more respected classification societies, raised a red flag last year about foreign-flagged ships. Association President Peter Chandler says his group's inspectors have witnessed cases in which documents cataloging a ship's safety history have been removed by the owner, yet "a surveyor acting on behalf of some faraway state" signs off on its seaworthiness.

Chandler says owners can change their flag and classification society in a matter of a day, with no inspection.

As the world merchant fleet gets older, he says, these fly-by-night classification societies "have even more to offer the irresponsible owner."

"Such organizations present a double threat," Chandler says. "They have no standards and so make no demands."

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