Folks all over the world were shocked and saddened about the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly students, when a ferry overturned and sank in South Korean waters. It was reported last month that the doomed ferry Sewol exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips – nearly every voyage it made in which it reported cargo – during the 13 months before it sank. Documents revealing the regulatory failures that allowed the passengers to set off on an unsafe vessel were released on May 5. Based on reports, the ferry may have been more overloaded than ever on this, its final journey. It’s time for South Korean leaders to make sure drastic changes are made on how they regulate the staffing of ships and shipping. This sad and tragic happening is a prime example of the consequences resulting from poor and inadequate regulation by a government of an industry. To amplify on that, the facts of this tragic event will be set out below.
The Sewol sank on April 16, leaving more than 300 people missing or dead, and exposing enormous safety gaps in South Korea’s monitoring of domestic passenger ships, which is in some ways less rigorous than its rules for ships that handle only cargo. The country’s regulators had more than enough information to conclude that the Sewol was routinely overloaded. But because the agencies did not share that data and were not required to do so, it was virtually useless.
The Sewol was redesigned and began operating again in March 2013. After that time, it was reported that it exceeded its 987-ton limit on at least 246 of its 394 individual voyages. More than 2,000 tons of cargo was reported on 136 of the Sewol’s trips, and it topped 3,000 tons 12 times. Records indicate it never carried as much as it did on its final disastrous voyage: Moon Ki-han, a vice president at Union Transport Co., the company that loaded the ship, said it was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo.
But the port operator has no record of the cargo from the Sewol’s last voyage. It is not mandatory for passenger ferries to report cargo to the port operator. Ferry operators submit that information only after trips are completed, to compile statistics, not for safety purposes. In that respect, rules for domestic passenger ships are looser than those for cargo-only vessels, which must report cargo before they depart.
According to South Korean law, the shipping association may report violations to either the coast guard or the state-run port operator. Both entities said they were never told of excessive cargo on the Sewol. South Korea, unlike many other countries, relies on a private industry-affiliated body to determine whether a ship is safe to sail. That’s an obvious recipe for disaster.
Some experts contended that the Sewol never should have been cleared to operate after its redesign. They say the owner would not have been able to make money under the register’s new cargo limits. Experts have said if the ship was severely overloaded, even a small turn could cause it to lose its balance. Tracking data show the ship made a 45-degree turn around the time it began sinking. Crew members reportedly said something went wrong with the steering as they attempted a much less severe turn. At press time the cause of the sinking of the Sewol was still under investigation.
All 15 surviving crew members involved in the ferry’s navigation have been arrested and accused of negligence and failing to protect passengers. Prosecutors also detained three employees of the ferry owner who handled cargo, and have raided the offices of the ship owner, the shipping association and the register. Heads of the shipping association and the register have offered to resign in the wake of the disaster.
The shipping association, whose members are shipping companies and ship operators, took on that responsibility in 1973 after a 1970 sinking in which about 320 people died. It also oversees crew education and is partly government-funded, but its biggest business is selling insurance to its members. According to its website, about 75 percent of its 110 billion won ($107 million) budget for 2014 was allocated to its insurance department. The budget for the department dealing with domestic passenger ship safety was 7.4 billion won ($7.2 million). The association has 71 safety inspectors at 13 South Korean ports and its headquarters.
Many of the association’s high-level officials come from the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries. Ministry officials may be reluctant to question association officials who are former senior public servants, or even their former bosses. The register, which made the cargo limit evaluation, also is a private entity.
In Europe, North America and Japan, regulation is generally done by public bodies such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.K.’s Maritime and Coastal Agency. In Japan, the government checks ships once a year, and conducts unannounced inspections of crew qualification and emergency training. At the same time, it’s common for governments to rely on ship captains to report their loads accurately. It would be virtually impossible to check every boat, experts say. Since the Sewol disaster, the oceans ministry has been considering reassigning the job of overseeing passenger-ship safety.
Source: Claims Journal
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