USCG Updates Alternative Planning Criteria National Guidelines for Vessel Response Plans

As part of the US's oil spill response plan under OPA 1990, it is mandatory for all oil carrying vessels, tank and nontank, operating within 200 nautical miles of the US baseline, and not engaged in innocent passage, to establish Vessel Response Plans (VRPs) complying with the national planning criteria (NPC). In remote areas which include Western Alaska, Guam and American Samoa, where there is inadequate equipment for responding to a clean-up in the event of a spill, and thus the NPC cannot be complied with, vessel owners/operators (VO/O) may submit VRPs based on an Alternative Planning Criteria (APC).

In August 2009, the US Coast Guard (CG) published guidance to the maritime industry for obtaining APCs. Over the years, this guidance has been added to and amended. Between 2016 and 2017, the CG drafted an update to the national guidelines for APC and sought public comments on the same.  Based on feedback and comments received, the Coast Guard has on October 16, 2017 published an updated Alternative Planning Criteria National Guidelines for VRPs (“the Guidelines”). The CG advises that this exercise was carried out to provide consistent guidelines nationally for evaluating proposed APCs, applicable to tank and nontank vessels.

Please find attached the CG’s MER POLICY LETTER 01-07 and 33CFR Part 155 from the Federal Register. Below is a summary of the key points relating to the updated Guidelines:

  • The CG views the allowance for APCs as a bridging strategy to future NPC compliance but acknowledges that in some remote operating areas, APCs may be long-term alternatives.
  • The CG does not see prevention measures such as tracking and monitoring as capable of replacing VRPs even if such measures are acceptable when included in an APC. 
  • The CG has  removed suggestions of a mandatory requirement for a tracking and monitoring system in APCs whilst noting that such systems are a helpful tool for response and prevention strategies.
  • The CG notes that tracking of vessels to be employed in a “vessel of opportunity” network is an example of a process for an APC but such tracking is not a requirement in a proposed  ‘‘response vessel of opportunity’’ network. The Guidelines will be amended to clarify this.
  • The CG explains that the Guidelines have been provided for the purpose of clarifying existing regulations. They do not create any new law. 
  • In response to suggestions that the Guidelines may result in significant increases in costs, the CG advises that it will be evaluating the economic impact of the Guidelines.
  • Recognising that some proposed APCs may warrant more analysis than others, the Guidelines recommend that proposals are submitted at least 180 days (up from the previous 90 days) before a vessel intends to operate under the proposed alternative. 
  • The CG confirms that it may accept an alternative that only partially covers a COTP zone, and maintains that this has always been the position.
  • The CG confirms that it will review achievement of build-out plan goals in its review of APCs submitted for renewal. This is in line with the CG’s view that the intent of an APC is to gradually build up response capability in remote areas.
  • The CG notes that an O/VO of a tank or nontank vessel should, at a minimum, include an environmental impact assessment for the CG’s consideration of whether to accept an alternative.
  • The CG clarifies that where salvage and marine firefighting NPC are inappropriate, a VO/O may propose an APC. 
  • The CG has modified the language in the Guidelines to reflect that an APC may cover a single vessel or fleet of vessels and state the vessel type(s) and oil volumes by type. There is no longer a requirement to state each class of vessel and its associated worst case discharge volume and oil group.
  • VO/Os, or APC Administrators, should submit any significant change that affects the information included in the accepted APCs to the relevant COTP.
  • The CG acknowledges that time may be needed to update and re-submit existing APCs to align with the Guidelines, and advises that extensions of currently accepted APCs may be approved for a period not to exceed 6 months from the dates of expiration.

If Members have any questions on the above, your usual Club contact would be happy to assist.

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