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Don't Risk Safety of Columbia River Commerce

The Oregonian

Growth in maritime commerce is a key ingredient in Oregon's future economic outlook and recovery. Now more than ever our maritime industry partners should be working in a supportive and collaborative manner to maximize our state's role in this economic recovery. Instead, the seeds of dissension continue to be planted before the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots, to the detriment of all river stakeholders.

Specifically, the plea by the Columbia River Steamship Operators Association to erode the excellent transportation system built by the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association moves against this spirit of cooperation and ultimately could further disadvantage Columbia River ports in a highly competitive environment.

Steamship operators are understandably concerned with the costs of transport through the Columbia River system. But attacking the efficiency of the bar pilots transportation system clearly misses the mark. They have asked the board of maritime pilots to eliminate the two-tiered transportation system used by bar pilots to access incoming and outgoing vessels. This is the same innovative system that has led to the most efficient, safe and effective movement of vessels across the Columbia River bar in our history.

The addition of helicopter transport has enabled Columbia River bar pilots to significantly reduce bar closures in rough weather, avoiding delays while building a safety record that should be the envy of all.

Technology is the key to increased competitiveness in all industry, and the ship operators' efforts to turn back the clock are mystifying. What happens if a helicopter is out of service? Are ship operators willing to accept the delays associated with an inability to get a bar pilot aboard a ship?

Hyundai recently announced it would stop calling on Columbia River ports. The reason was not the cost of transport through the system, but rather, a need to reduce the time needed to complete that transport. Anthony Galati, district manager for Hyundai Merchant Marine, was quoted in The Oregonian directly to that issue. He was quoted as saying that schedule integrity was the "driving force" behind the decision to drop ship calls to the Port of Portland. He further went on to say that delays, in some cases just hours, made a huge difference in making the schedule work.

Does anyone think building in a recipe for delay into our system will not exacerbate that concern?

Adding insult to injury, the steamship association is asking the board to reduce pilotage rates sufficient to fund only 13.5 bar pilots. This at a time when the pilots are struggling to keep ships on schedule during peak call periods. Pilots have been called in off-schedule to ensure sufficient pilots are available to meet peak demand. Reducing available pilots by about 12 percent takes us the opposite direction.

Ironically, the bar pilots have requested that the maritime board authorize two additional pilots to current staffing levels to maintain efficiency and avoid fatigue. To date, the board has not ruled on that request. This despite the fact that funding for the new pilots would come from the existing rate allotment.

But the bar pilots could provide their services for free and it would do nothing to mitigate the systemic issues that confront recruiting maritime carriers to Columbia River ports. The dredging of the Columbia River to accommodate vessels with larger carrying capacity, the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not keeping up with dredging in the Portland Harbor because of issues related to a Superfund listing, and the business decision regarding the type of shipping the Port of Portland should work to recruit are much more significant issues to the health of Columbia River commerce.

It is regressive thinking to believe that being penny wise and pound foolish with the one aspect of Columbia River shipping that works is going to advance economic rebound in the region.

The Board of Maritime Pilots should applauded the Columbia River Bar Pilots for their stellar record in safety and efficiency and not dismantle success through a shortsighted view of the challenges all river users face.

Wayne Stolz, Roger Nelson, Barry Barrett and Michael Glick are the board of directors for the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association.