March 21, 2022

Chair Carbajal Statement from Field Hearing on Strengthening Small Passenger Vessel Safety

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Salud Carbajal (D-CA) during today’s field hearing titled, “A Review of Coast Guard Efforts to Improve Small Passenger Vessel Safety.”

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair Carbajal:
Good morning, and welcome to today’s important hearing on small passenger vessel safety. This hearing is taking place in my district, beautiful Santa Barbara, California. But the location is unfortunately significant for another reason. 27 miles south of here, on September 2, 2019, 34 individuals tragically lost their lives. On that date, the dive boat Conception caught fire while all the passengers were asleep. Because there was not an interconnected fire alarm system on the vessel, the passengers and crew were not alerted to the fire as smoke filled the lower levels. A roving night watch was required by law to be awake and if they were, they might have been able to alert the passengers. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

I share my deepest condolences to the victim’s families, some of whom have joined us here today. I cannot begin to understand the sorrow these families have gone through. Going forward, we must ensure that safety measures are adopted so that no other family must endure this pain. I hope Admiral Mauger and Chair Homendy take the time to visit with the families who are in attendance today, to hear their thoughts and worries, so that progress to make our waters safer can be made together. 

Today I hope to hear how the Coast Guard has taken steps to address National Transportation Safety Board recommendations and implement regulations required in my bill, the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which passed into law at the end of the 116th Congress as part of the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020. 

We need to know that Coast Guard-inspected vessels will be as safe as possible for passengers as well as crew members. At the time of the tragedy, the Conception was exempt from certain requirements that apply to newer vessels and was in compliance with those that did apply. Updated laws and regulations must be immediately implemented when deficiencies are identified.

It is the responsibility of Congress to prioritize the lives and safety of crew and passengers. This hearing is needed to evaluate the oversight of small passenger vessels, and identify what is working, and what needs improvement.  

The United States has a history of taking a reactionary approach to safety; creating maritime safety laws after tragedy rather than preemptively strengthening safety requirements for a more robust industry, one that is effectively regulated and inspected. 

I share the National Transportation Safety Board’s concerns: recent accidents on small passenger vessels demonstrate that poor preventative maintenance, lax fire prevention and inadequate crew training all continue to be contributing factors leading to disaster. The Board also highlights the importance of Safety Management Systems on all types of vessels to prepare crews for emergency scenarios. These important recommendations were policies that I included in my Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, and recently the Coast Guard released new interim rules for overnight passenger vessels. These are important steps toward full implementation of improved safety standards. But I share concerns in the Coast Guard response. It took nearly a year for the interim rules to be released after passage of the Act even though the National Transportation Safety Board provided these recommendations years before the Conception tragedy. It took congressional action to force the Coast Guard’s hand. This is of great concern to me. I expect the final rule to come out promptly, and to address every requirement in my legislation, including a requirement to document and monitor the training certifications of all crew members. 

Going forward, there’s more work to be done. Not just by the Coast Guard and NTSB, but by Congress as well. Included in the House Coast Guard Authorization Act is my legislation, the Small Passenger Vessel Liability Fairness Act, which will update antiquated liability laws so that victims and their families receive just compensation in the wake of tragedy. No amount of compensation can bring back a loved one or make the pain go away, but it is necessary to hold the responsible parties accountable. We’ve also included a requirement that the Coast Guard respond to all NTSB recommendations which I hope will help improve the working relationship and make Coast Guard act quicker. 

Oversight of safety measures is vital to protecting lives and property. It is incumbent on the industry, in conjunction with the Coast Guard, to provide a safe and reliable experience for passengers. It is the job of this committee to conduct proper oversight so that everyone who steps on a vessel reaches the end of their voyage safely.