Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 10 Stories of 2011

The Davy Crockett salvage operation. Photo by Washington Department of Ecology
Each December WorkBoat magazine publishes its picks for the top maritime stories of the year, and I compare its list to coverage the same stories got in the mainstream media. Compared to 2009 and 2010, this years stories are relatively "inside" and share a common theme of a continuing economic slowdown piled on by fallout from 2010's Deepwater Horizon disaster and 2011's heavy flooding on the inland waterways. Many of WorkBoat's Top 10 got no coverage in mainstream media at all.

1) Towing Vessel Inspection Rule. The most comprehensive changes to the towing industry in forty years were proposed by the US Coast Guard in August. The new inspection regime mirrors rules already in force for other commercial vessels. Tug operators have several concerns, from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the estimated price tag of up to $18 million to bring more than 5200 US tow vessels into compliance. The story was covered heavily by the industry press, but not at all by mainstream outlets.

2) Flooding Woes Hit The Waterways. Late spring and early summer brought massive flooding of the Western Rivers (the Mississippi and those that flow into it). Parts of the system were closed to navigation for long periods, leaving operators to reduce capacity by anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. This was covered heavily by the mainstream media. Time magazine's Paige Bowers had particularly good story on the dangers of navigating a swollen river.

3) Passenger Weight Limit Hits Operators. After a couple of fatal passenger vessel founderings in the mid-2000s, the Coast Guard found a common thread: although the vessels carried no more than the legally allowed number of passengers, they were nonetheless overloaded. The reason? The current stability calculations were enacted in the 1960s, when people weighed less. The new raises the per-person weight from 160 to 185 pounds. Vessel operators are concerned that already-small profit margins will suffer with fewer passengers allowed on each boat. The impact on individual operators got good coverage in several local papers. The British press can't resist a good story about how fat Americans are; find good overviews of the story from The Independent and The Daily Mail.

4) New Offshore Drilling Permits Finally Issued. WorkBoat is largely written by people actually working in the maritime industry, both on ships and ashore, so it's no surprise that the magazine comes down in favor of things that benefit the industry, like shipyard contracts, and is opposed to things like drilling moratoriums. You can almost hear the exasperated exhale with the word "Finally" in this headline venting a year-long frustration with the US government's foot dragging about getting back to normal after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The mainstream media published a flurry of stories at the end of 2010 when the moratorium was first lifted, but 2011's coverage was mainly related to stock prices (especially Transocean's), oil exploration, and energy. Chattanooga TV station WDEF posted a good Associated Press story on its website.

5) TWIC's Reputation Remains Dubious. Possibly the most unpopular maritime law since the British Navy eliminated rum rations, the TWIC program took another hit in May when the Government Accountability Office published a report saying the program had significant security and administrative problems. The US Coast Guard is already backing off the program: in December it said that TWIC holders that work on vessels that don't require a security plan won't be required to renew their cards. As usual, TWIC is a virtually unknown issue outside the industries affected and receive no coverage.

6) Fallout From Duck Boat Accident Continues. The July 2010 collision between a duck tour boat and a tug and barge on the Delaware River near Philadelphia has taken a few twists and turns. Because of the recent history of duck boat accidents, many initially assumed the tour boat was somehow at fault (WorkBoat even ran a poll asking of the boats should be forbidden from operating in certain areas), but ultimately it was the watch stander on the tug who was found at fault for using a cell phone and laptop, not listening to the radio, and not being in a place where he could see the other vessel. The "fallout" includes a Coast Guard ban on cell phone for its own watch standers. Reuters did a good summing up in November.

7) Inland Infrastructure Funding Remains Elusive. Crumbling dikes, locks, dams, and canals are all part of the national infrastructure, but were left largely uncared-for while highways, bridges, and railways got the bulk of federal money. The industry press covered this heavily, but the mainstream press mainly lost it on process stories about Congressional gridlock. One exception was The New Republic, whose Peter McFerrin suggests the shipping industry get behind user fees to avoid needed programs being held up by politics/

8) Weak Economy Fuels Consolidation. WorkBoat says "the inability of the US economy to gain traction since the recession continues to affect the workboat industry" but the increasing consolidation in all sectors of the industry -- shipyards, tugs, passenger vessels -- continues a 20-year trend. The trend remains largely uncovered outside the maritime, defense, and business press unless it affects a local business.

9) The Green Revolution Continues. The use of "green" technologies by Hornblower Cruises, Foss Maritime, and others got heavy coverage in WorkBoat and other trade magazines, but little elsewhere except the occasional item in the business press.

10) The Davy Crockett Salvage. The former Liberty ship Davy Crockett ended up an abandoned barge anchored in the Columbia River when a small salvage operator began an illegal operation to salvage it; it ended up being a very complex and expensive operation, ultimately costing $22 million. Local media did a decent job covering the story, including this from Scott Gutierrez of

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