El Faro Testimony: Coast Guard Reviews Tiny Fraction Of Ship Safety Inspections

Feb 22, 2016

The El Faro went down en route from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico in October.
Credit Reuters/NPR

Emotions ran high over the weekend as families of the El Faro crew heard Captain Michael Davidson’s distress calls for the first time.

The Marine Board of Investigation played the call while questioning TOTE Maritime’s “designated person ashore,” Captain John Lawrence. Lawrence was Davidson’s main company contact, but when the El Faro captain called, he could reach only a call center.

Lawrence told investigators the call center had a maritime-emergency plan, but it hadn’t been updated in the last year.

Davidson also called Lawrence directly, but was unable to get through. He left a voicemail saying he had a “navigational incident.” Lawrence says he’s unaware of what that meant.

On Monday the hearing continued with a deep look into the Coast Guard's oversight of ship inspections. Throughout the day’s testimony it was revealed the Coast Guard reviews only a tiny fraction of cargo-ship safety inspections.

Coast Guard Captain John Mauger told the Marine Board of Investigation his Marine Safety Center reviewed very few ship modifications and inspections conducted by third-party groups in 2014.

The modifications and surveys, referred to as “plan reviews,” are conducted under a public-private partnership called the Alternate Compliance Program. That program was started in 1995.

In 2014,  Mauger said, “We had about 11,000 notifications. We selected somewhere around 5 percent. We identified discrepancies in 38 percent of those plans."

From 2012 to 2013 the percentage of discrepancies averaged 16 percent.

The Coast Guard allows third parties to repair and survey commercial vessels. That information is then sent to the Marine Safety Center.

Mauger says his small staff spends half its time reviewing that third-party information, but isn't equipped to find all errors. Sometimes, Mauger admits, an error in a ship-building plan is only discovered after someone is hurt.

Some of those errors have included inadequate fire-protection systems and the use of unauthorized automated equipment.

Third-party contractor American Bureau of Shipping conducts 90 percent of all repairs and inspections for shipping freighters and was in charge of work on the El Faro when it sank in October.

At issue specifically were modifications made to the 40-year-old El Faro’s hull in the 1990s and subsequent inspections. Representatives for the American Bureau of Shipping clarified during the hearings, though, that it hadn’t come into possession of the El Faro contract until 2006.