Voices of Alaska: Cook Inlet would benefit from a Harbor Safety Committee – here’s why

  • By Capt. Paul Mehler III
  • Saturday, November 22, 2014 5:16pm
  • Opinion

In a recent editorial, (Harbor Safety Committee proposal needs clearer goals, Nov. 15) the Peninsula Clarion questioned the reasons for creating a Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee (HSC) and asked what role a Harbor Safety Committee would play that isn’t already being filled by other organizations, such as Cook Inlet RCAC. These are important questions and I am pleased to answer them from my perspective as Captain of the Port, Western Alaska.

Creating a Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee was a priority recommendation of the Cook Inlet Risk Assessment, (CIRA). Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation comprised a management team that led the Cook Inlet Risk Assessment (CIRA) effort. The Management Team established an Advisory Panel and hired the Nuka Research & Planning Group, from Seldovia, Alaska, and Pearson Consulting as Project Manager. The Advisory Panel represented a structured stakeholder/participatory approach intended to build trust, and clarify the values and goals that underpin the assessment process. The Advisory Panel consisted of stakeholders and experts who offered local knowledge and expertise on all issues pertinent to the assessment, such as local infrastructure, relevant industries, waterways and their navigation, weather, and habitats. The Advisory Panel operated as an independent entity from the Management Team.

This Advisory Panel recognized that no organization currently existed in Cook Inlet to give the maritime community a forum to come together with one voice to promote safe navigation and best practices for Cook Inlet’s waterways. Harbor Safety Committees have been successful throughout the United States and have become an excellent venue to share best practices and lessons learned from previous incidents. The Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee will be a solutions-oriented group organized to address the risks that were identified in the Cook Inlet Maritime Risk Assessment effort. My immediate challenge to the HSC is Prevention — work hard to put into place policies and best practices that would prevent the next marine casualty from impacting Cook Inlet.

Harbor Safety Committees differ from existing organizations, like Cook Inlet RCAC, in that they are comprised largely of maritime industry users. The Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee would include a team of stakeholders in Cook Inlet, including; U.S. Coast Guard, port authorities, vessel operators, terminal operators, marine pilots, commercial fishing and pleasure boat operator designees, labor organizations with waterborne vessels operations, State agencies, etc. Currently, there is no non-regulatory organization that captures these diverse stakeholders to the fullest extent. And unlike RCACs, which are focused on crude oil production and transportation and routinely make recommendations on regulatory issues, Harbor Safety Committees have a different focus.

Harbor Safety Committees provide a forum for waterway users to discuss and coordinate on safety and security issues and allow for non-regulatory resolutions of water safety issues. Because they operate outside the regulatory context, they are encouraged to find practical ways to coordinate and cooperate among the waterway users.

Examples of important issues that would be of interest to a Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee include; winter ice guidelines, enhanced ice monitoring and transmission of ice conditions, engaging pilots and others in updating the Coast Pilot and emergency towing operations.

The Clarion article also questioned how recommendations from a Harbor Safety Committee would be received. One of the greatest strength of Harbor Safety Committees is that they give the maritime community a forum in which to communicate with each other and share recommendations based on best practices and lessons learned from past incidents. These recommendations and best practices would be publicized to the widest extent possible, so that waterways users can put them into practice. Although not a regulatory agency, a Cook Inlet Harbor Safety Committee may recommend best practices and recommendations be forwarded to the appropriate regulatory authority to consider for implementation in future policies or even regulations.

From my perspective as Captain of the Port, when safety issues are identified and solutions are developed by the users of the waterways, the opportunity for a successful solution is inevitable. It is important to note the recommendations of a HSC are just that — recommendations. But when they come from a collection of users those recommendations may quickly become our own best practices.

Organizing groups around common interests and viewpoints is not an unusual occurrence. User groups that pull their resources together in a collaborative setting, share common goals, and work together to get results. Cook Inlet is a critical waterway with unique challenges. Having a means to accommodate these important discussions and advance them to the next levels to improve safety is responsible partnerships.

With a Harbor Safety Committee, I believe that we could look forward to safer navigation, and improvements in environmental protection in Cook Inlet, which will benefit all Alaskans who are so passionate about Cook Inlet’s waters.

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler III is Captain of the Port, Western Alaska.

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