[Federal Register Volume 79, Number 166 (Wednesday, August 27, 2014)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 51134-51136]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2014-19944]



Coast Guard

46 CFR Part 7

[Docket No. USCG-2011-0925]

Special Load Line Exemption for the Gulf of Mexico: Petition for 

AGENCY: Coast Guard, DHS.

ACTION: Notice of decision.


SUMMARY: On October 1, 2012, the Coast Guard published a Notice of 
Availability and Request for Public Comment regarding a petition for a 
rulemaking action. The petition requested that the Coast Guard 
establish a load line-exempted route in the Gulf of Mexico, along the 
western coast of Florida. Upon review of the comments as well as 
analysis of safety considerations and other factors described in the 
discussion section, the Coast Guard has decided not to proceed with the 
requested rulemaking. The public comments, and the Coast Guard's 
reasoning for its decision, are discussed in this notice.

DATES: This decision was issued on August 15, 2014.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: If you have questions on this notice, 
contact Mr. Thomas Jordan, Naval Architecture Division (CG-ENG-2), U.S. 
Coast Guard Headquarters, at telephone 202-372-1370, or by email at 
[email protected]. If you have questions on viewing or 
submitting material to the docket, call Cheryl Collins, Program 
Manager, Docket Operations, telephone 202-366-9826.


Regulatory History and Background

    The purpose of a load line (LL) assignment is to ensure a vessel is 
seaworthy for operation outside the Boundary Line. Load lines are 
required by 46 U.S.C. 5101-5116 and 46 CFR Subchapter E. In general, 
the LL assignment requires that vessels are robustly constructed, 
fitted with

[[Page 51135]]

watertight and weathertight closures, and are inspected annually to 
ensure that they are being maintained in a seaworthy condition. Because 
non-LL river barges are not constructed to those standards, nor subject 
to the same periodic inspection, they are not normally allowed to 
operate outside the Boundary Line. However, certain non-LL river barges 
might be allowed on carefully-evaluated routes, under restricted 
    Along the U.S. Gulf coast there is a 12-mile-wide nearshore marine 
corridor, inside of which non-LL vessels can operate (and outside of 
which commercial vessels 79 feet or longer must have a load line). 
However, this marine corridor is constricted by an expanse of shallow 
water off the western coast of Florida. To navigate around that shallow 
zone requires most commercial vessels to move more than 12 miles 
offshore (i.e. outside the Boundary Line) for a 32-mile stretch between 
Crystal River and Tarpon Springs. This excursion outside the Boundary 
Line precludes fully-loaded non-LL river barges from making that 
passage (although partially-loaded or empty river barges could make the 
passage inside the Boundary Line). Therefore, cargoes destined for the 
Tampa Bay region are transported on LL vessels (which can transit 
outside the Boundary Line), or by overland modes (truck or rail).
    On June 29, 2011, Parker Towing Company, Inc., a towboat and barge 
operator on the U.S. Gulf Coast, sent the Coast Guard a petition 
letter. The petition requested that the Coast Guard establish a load 
line-exempted route along the western Florida coast between Crystal 
River and Tarpon Springs. Commercial vessels 79 feet or longer are 
normally required to have a load line to operate in those waters; the 
exemption would allow non-load line river barges to operate on the 
route under restricted weather and loading conditions.
    The requested exemption would be a route approximately 32 nautical 
miles long, 12 to 15 nautical miles offshore. The petition suggests 
that non-load line (non-LL) river barges could operate on this route 
under favorable weather conditions and other loading restrictions. This 
would allow them to directly transport dry, non-hazardous cargoes from 
upriver terminals (in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi) to the Tampa 
Bay ports and terminals.
    The Coast Guard opened docket USCG-2011-0925 and published a Notice 
of Availability and Request for Public Comment (77 FR 59881, October 1, 
2012) with a 90-day comment period. The comment period closed on 
December 31, 2012; however, several comments were submitted after the 
closing date. The Coast Guard has considered all comments submitted up 
to March 21, 2014.

Discussion of Comments

    In response to the notice, eleven commenters submitted 38 comments 
to the docket. The commenters included local manufacturers, towboat and 
barge operators, mariner association and seafarer unions, and port 
operators; their comments can be viewed online at www.regulations.gov 
(enter ``USCG-2011-0925'' in the search box).
    Collectively, the comments fell into five basic categories:
    In favor of the petition: Supportive commenters included 
manufacturers located on or near upriver terminals. Although river 
barges can presently serve some of those companies, their products 
cannot be shipped by river barges to Tampa Bay. Establishing the 
exempted route would allow them to use river barges (rather than 
overland modes, or other maritime transportation options). The Tampa 
Port Authority and Port Manatee (located on Tampa Bay) also favored the 
petition as a means to expand cargo movements through their ports.
    Opposed for reasons of operational safety: Two commenters are 
towboat and barge companies who operate barges with load lines (LL 
barges) on the Gulf. On the basis of their operational familiarity with 
the Gulf waters, they raised concerns regarding the exposed route, the 
volatility of Gulf weather and sea conditions, and lack of ports-of-
refuge where a tow could find shelter. The commenters also pointed out 
that LL vessels are periodically inspected to verify that they are 
maintained in a seaworthy condition, whereas non-LL vessels are not 
subject to any such inspections, and consequently their seaworthiness 
is not ensured. For these reasons, the commenters stated that the 
exempted route would put both the non-LL river barges--and their 
cargoes--at risk. Another commenter (a mariner association) raised 
these concerns, too.
    Opposed for reasons of competitive disadvantage: The LL barge 
operators pointed out the higher costs of LL barges versus non-LL 
barges, and expressed concerns that they could find themselves unfairly 
competing against lower-cost non-LL operators on load line routes. As 
one commenter stated: ``Companies which invest such substantial sums, 
not just to meet the requirements of law and regulation, but to ensure 
that they safely and responsibly serve the requirements of shippers in 
that market, should not have to compete against unsafe operations 
facilitated by a waiver of the rules.''
    Opposed for reasons of mariner safety: Several commenters expressed 
concerns about mariners working on a non-LL barge in offshore waters 
(even if boarding only temporarily, to adjust towlines for example). 
One commenter asked several detailed questions about the type of barge 
and cargo contemplated, and the specifics of the route planned.
    Administrative comments: One commenter inquired about a May 2011 
letter from the Coast Guard referenced in the petitioner's letter. We 
have posted the letter in the docket. The commenter also asks about the 
status of MARAD docket number 2010-0035 regarding America's Marine 
Highways, but we have no relevant information about that Department of 
Transportation docket.

Discussion of Decision

    The overall purpose of a load line assignment, and the waters in 
which commercial vessels must comply, are described in the Notice of 
Availability (79 FR 59881, October 1, 2012) and in 46 CFR subchapter E. 
When assigning a load line, the Coast Guard is required by 46 U.S.C. 
5104(b) to consider the service, type and character of the vessel, the 
geographic area in which the vessel will operate, and applicable 
international agreements to which the United States is a party. The 
Coast Guard may exempt vessels from load line requirements for good 
cause (see 46 U.S.C. 5108 and 46 CFR 42.03-30) and vessel owners and 
operators may apply for special service load lines (46 CFR part 44). 
The Coast Guard has existing regulations at 46 CFR part 45, subpart E, 
exempting certain unmanned, river-service, dry-cargo barges from Great 
Lakes load line requirements in limited circumstances.
    The Coast Guard's analysis and public comments highlighted the fact 
that there are barges, which meet the load line standards, that are 
already engaged in commercial service along this route today. Barges 
which meet load line standards include design features to prevent down-
flooding, and to prevent progressive flooding and sinking through 
subdivision of the vessel's interior. If the Coast Guard were to 
approve this petition, it would allow vessels of a type and character 
which do not meet the same safety standards for design, construction, 
operation and inspection to engage in trade along this route, thereby 
reducing the established minimum safe construction and operating 
standards for vessels traveling along this offshore route.

[[Page 51136]]

    Although the petitioner argues that operating a few miles beyond 
the limits established in the regulations should be considered as safe 
as operating within the limits, the maritime regulations are based on 
the existence of well documented thresholds beyond which higher 
standards apply. To consider this request under that logic would be to 
undermine a key foundation in the Coast Guard's approach to maritime 
regulation. Moreover, the area's geography contains a large expanse of 
shallow water along the proposed route, which would preclude a fully 
laden barge from seeking a close port of refuge in an emergency. 
Depending on where the barge was in its journey, the nearest accessible 
port of refuge may be as far as 31 miles away.
    We also considered evaluating this request based on geographically 
limiting the route from a specific upriver port or terminal to a 
specific port or destination in Tampa. In a prior petition for an 
exemption on the Great Lakes, this was the approach that was taken to 
severely limit the scope of application and ensure an adequate level of 
safety along a limited route within the Great Lakes. Even if the Coast 
Guard restricted the exemption to only those vessels that originated at 
certain up-river terminals, as was done on the Great Lakes, this 
decision would allow non-LL river barges to operate on a LL route, 
which would create a multi-tiered regulatory regime, based on specific 
routes between designated upriver terminals and the Tampa Bay ports. 
Under this regime, a tug that traveled from a designated upriver 
terminal to Tampa Bay would be able to use a non-LL river barge, but a 
tug that traveled along the same waters between other coastal ports and 
Tampa Bay would have to use a LL barge. The Coast Guard believes such 
discrepancies do not serve the interests of maritime safety or maritime 
commerce generally, because they foster confusion and opportunities for 
abuse, and can remove or weaken incentives for safety and efficiency.
    Moreover, a multi-tiered regulatory regime is unenforceable as a 
practical matter. Load line and non-LL barges can legitimately be found 
in the same port and there is nothing that inherently identifies a non-
LL barge participating in any such multi-tiered program. Therefore, if 
the requested exempted route is established, there is nothing that 
effectively prevents non-LL barges from loading cargoes at any Gulf 
port (not just upriver terminals) for delivery to Tampa, or for return 
cargoes (loaded at Tampa) to be delivered to any Gulf port. In order to 
prevent such transits, the Coast Guard would need to individually 
inspect the cargo manifest and vessel logs for all non-LL barges, 
causing delay to all vessels including those that may be on permissible 
voyages inside the Boundary Line. The delay to commercial shipping and 
the diversion of Coast Guard resources to this effort are not 
practicable or in the interest of maritime commerce.
    With minor exceptions, the U.S. requirements for domestic load line 
are the same as the requirements for an international load line and are 
consistent with the International Load Line Convention. As a party to 
the convention, the U.S. is obliged to promote standardization of load 
line regulations. Our decision to deny the petition is consistent with 
this obligation.
    For all the reasons above, the Coast Guard denies the petition and 
will not undertake the rulemaking requested.
    This notice is issued under authority of 5 U.S.C. 553(e), 555(e) 
and 46 U.S.C. 5108.

    Dated: August 15, 2014.
J.G. Lantz,
Director of Commercial Regulations and Standards, U.S. Coast Guard.
[FR Doc. 2014-19944 Filed 8-26-14; 8:45 am]