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There are concerns poorly regulated foreign ships could cause another bridge collapse


The container ship that destroyed a bridge in Baltimore one month ago today raised questions about risks for all U.S. ports. WYPR's Scott Maucione reports on what's at stake when ships register in a foreign country to take advantage of looser regulations.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: By now, the video is iconic - a massive ship traveling in the night hits the pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which collapses like a child's toy. One lesser-known detail of that video is the lights of the ship flicker right before impact.

KELLY SWEENEY: From my perspective as a professional mariner, it's obvious that it was a mechanical problem.

MAUCIONE: Captain Kelly Sweeney holds the highest possible seafaring qualification and has spent decades helming commercial cargo ships.

SWEENEY: What happened in Baltimore - that could easily happen for lack of maintenance or any given day in any port.

MAUCIONE: The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the collision. However, some mariners believe maintenance or human error issues led to the wreck. No determination has been made yet. The incident's renewing years-old fears from mariners that the complicated world of shipping regulations may be a threat to other U.S. ports. The International Transport Workers' Federation has designated 32 flags of convenience. They're associated with countries that allow ships to register with lower fees, taxes and loose safety and labor laws. Last year, ships flying the flags of Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands accounted for about half of the shipping cargo that traversed the world.

DAVID HEINDEL: They basically let the ship owners regulate themselves.

MAUCIONE: David Heindel's the president of the Seafarers International Union, which represents merchant mariners.

HEINDEL: Anyone that's in it just for the money is going to take advantage of every opportunity that they have, whether it be a lack of environmental standards, lack of operating standards. It happens every day.

MAUCIONE: That lack of regulation leads to inexperienced crews, longer wait times between maintenance, less upkeep of important safety tasks and lack of pay for employees. The Dali, which crashed into the Baltimore bridge, was flying under a Singaporean flag, which is not considered a flag of convenience, but Heindel says the Dali's crew, like many other foreign-flagged vessels, was spread thin. It's a common problem on ships that, in recent years, have only gotten larger.

HEINDEL: It'd probably be around 18 to 20, 21 people on a vessel.

MAUCIONE: The Dali is three times the length of the Statue of Liberty and carries 10,000 containers. Heindel says in the past, crews would have been much larger in size. U.S. ports do have some oversight built in. The Coast Guard's responsible for inspecting an ever-growing number of ships carrying more and more cargo. Lieutenant Commander Brian Hall is the chief of port state control at the Coast Guard.

BRIAN HALL: Last year, we had 81,854 port calls, and we had those port calls from about 11,000 foreign vessels, so a number of repeats. Of those 11,000 vessels that came, we conducted just under 8,300 inspections in total.

MAUCIONE: Captain Kelly Sweeney, the master mariner, says the resources are just spread too thin.

SWEENEY: There are about 1,200 foreign-flagged ships that come into our ports every day, and the Coast Guard inspects about 30 of them for safety problems. They don't have the people or the money to do it, and so it just goes by the wayside.

MAUCIONE: Sweeney and others say without more resources or more regulations, it's possible other ports could end up like Baltimore's.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione.


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Scott Maucione