Project Lighthouse: New Study of US Jones Act Ships Finds Some with “High-Risk Probability for Severe Accidents and Casualties” that “Require Immediate Action to Control the Potential Hazard…”

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A new maritime vessel risk ratings study, commissioned by this column, shows that old “Jones Act” ships designated as “militarily useful” are far riskier than similar vessels in the world fleet – and two are rated as so risky that the agency advises such ships generally “require immediate action to control the potential hazard.”

“Vessel (is) a high-risk probability for severe accidents and casualties,” the agency says of ships carrying its “red” designation. 

The study was undertaken by this blog as a part of “The Lighthouse (El Faro) Project,” designed to make more transparent safety-related information on American merchant marine vessels. 

Matson Producer

The study was commissioned after the US Coast Guard declined The Lighthouse Project request for inspection records. The Lighthouse Project then contracted with a private enterprise rating agency for 17 reports on the oldest container and “ro-ro” ships in the American merchant marine Jones Act fleet.  

The selected vessels were all more than 20 years old and comprise half the total of the 34 Jones Act cargo vessels said to be of most use to the military, according to MARAD records. (Tankers were not included.) 

The risk rating firm, the International Maritime Risk Rating Agency (IMRRA), is a European-based company that uses inspection, pollution, injury, casualty and port intelligence records to assign the ratings, all with the help of computer technology and algorithms. It works with FleetMon data among other inputs.  

The Jones Act requires that all ships in the U.S. Coastal Trade be built in America and manned by Americans. Free market enthusiasts despise it while ship owners and maritime labor unions support it. 

The US Coast Guard uses similar approaches to risk assessment but has declined to makes its list of “high risk ships” available to Project Lighthouse. 

The old American fleet fared poorly. Fifteen ships were classified as “amber” – the equivalent of a flashing yellow traffic signal.  Two – the SS Matsonia and the SS Matson Producer – were given “red” ratings.  

The SS Matsonia, now 46 years old, is the sister ship of the lost ship the SS El Faro, which sank in 2015 with all crew and officers. The SS Matson Producer is 45 years old but rated as even a higher risk than the Matsonia. 

Both have “red” ratings – the Matsonia with a score of 52 and the Producer with a score of 62.  An average fleet risk is 36.  While the Matson Producer has a “laid up” status according to some vessel reporting operations, MARAD as recently as August said the vessel is an active part of the Jones Act fleet, “militarily useful” and asset to the fleet, eligible to be deployed.

The Matsonia, which suffered a hull fracture earlier this year, continues to sail in the West Coast-Hawaii trade.  Supporters of the ship say she has been better maintained than the El Faro and sails on an easy-weather route. Nevertheless, the statistical case against the Matsonia is undeniable, filled with breakdowns and pollution incidents.

The “amber” rating for 15 of the ships is described here:  

Amber zone   Higher vessel risk ratings require
increased risk management strategies.

Overall, the fleet examined here appeared to have an average score that exceeded its “peers” in the world fleet of cargo ships by about one third. Crunching figures produces an estimate of 32 percent more risk in the US Fleet than a comparable “world average” of vessels. This means that foreign-flag vessels or “flags of convenience” ships — often looked on with disdain — are largely in better shape than the American fleet. In fact, some foreign flag registries decline to register ships older than 20 years — the generally acknowledged useful lifetime of a ship. The American flag vessels listed here all are older than age 20 — many more than twice that age.

Here is a chart of the vessels, their ratings, and the percentage above a safe “green” rating of 36 on the IMRAA scale.  (Click on main story headline to go to website and access for full list)

NameRating ScoreColor CodePercent Above Green Status
Matson Producer62Red81%
Horizon Enterprise46Amber31%
Horizon Pacific46Amber31%
Horizon Spirit45Amber28%
Maston Kodiak44Amber25%
Matson Tacoma44Amber25%
National Glory44Amber25%
Matson Anchorage42Amber19%
Horizon Reliance40Amber13%
RJ Pfeiffer37Amber3%
Fleet Average46Amber32%

The study raises new questions about the viability of the American Merchant Marine and its ability to serve the military adequately in the event of major “peer level” wars. 

The results and recent crackdowns on old ships by the Coast Guard also present a new challenge to the Jones Act, long despised by “free enterprise” foundations and politicians but supported by unions and shipyards as the last hope of the American merchant marine.

The question is whether the Jones Act can now function to provide an affordable supply of new ships to American operators at a reasonable price.  More expensive labor and a lack of scale hinder the prospect.  US shipyards, more focused on military contracts, do not mass-produce merchant vessels – often turning them out just a few to a class. These often run more than triple the cost of foreign yard ships.

However, the demand for new ships may never have been greater in decades because of the decrepit shape of the fleet, Coast Guard crackdowns and air quality standards that may drive the older vessels from service.  This may drive the demand for new ships and create opportunities of scale for the Jones Act to act as it was envisioned decades ago.

The Coast Guard has stated in hearings that more than 50 US Flag vessels are considered “high risk” but would not name the vessels. The Lighthouse Project is appealing that decision under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Lighthouse Project is named for the SS El Faro — “the lighthouse in spanish — an old vessel whose captain sailed her into Hurricane Joaquin. The Coast Guard later noted that the ship had serious inspection deficiencies that contributed to her sinking.

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