New ship rules come amid worst barge spills in six years

Tighter regulation of U.S. ships carrying record exports of diesel and gasoline is coming amid the worst year for oil spills from barges since 2008.

Coast Guard rules to be issued within the next 90 days would require commercial vessels nationwide to be equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology, which uses transponders and electronic chart displays to alert pilots to neighboring ships, according to trade group American Waterways Operators.

A pending inspection regulation would bring ships more in line with trains and trucks that carry similar cargo.

Growing amounts of shale oil that’s made the U.S. the world’s biggest energy producer moves through inland waterways on ships almost twice as long and that carry 10 times the load of vessels plying the same routes in the 1960s.

Export traffic on the Houston Ship Channel in 2013 rose 8.8 percent to a record 109.2 million metric tons. Towing vessels or barges were involved in 1,852 accidents and other mishaps nationwide last year, up four percent compared with 2012.

“More traffic is indicative of more opportunities for things to go south,” Steven Nerheim, director of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service for Houston-Galveston, said in an interview.

“Think about the size of the average merchant ship 50 years ago and then think about the size of the ships today. You’re dealing with 100,000-ton things,” he said.

A March 22 collision in the Houston Ship Channel, which closed the country’s largest export gateway for three days, spilled 168,000 gallons of oil from a barge, making this year the worst since at least 2008, when 286,653 gallons were lost from tank barges, according to a July 30 report by the Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators. There were 17,529 gallons spilled last year.

AIS is required in Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) zones, the busy waterways monitored for ship traffic by Coast Guard staff who watch radar and advise pilots, and has been voluntarily installed by other operators.