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Tragic boat accidents renew calls for navigation law

May 10, 2015

Tall waves and high winds reportedly caused the barge carrying 180 tons of ammonium nitrate to capsize in early May in Costa Rica’s Pacific Gulf of Nicoya. But government officials and environmental groups are now pointing blame at the Legislative Assembly for failing to pass a bill that they say could have prevented the accident.

The Aquatic Navigation bill (Expediente 18512), has been in the hands of the Legislative Assembly since 2010. The law would bar ships from leaving port during rough conditions and allow the government to punish vessels that do not comply with safety regulations. Costa Rica currently has no weather-related restrictions for boat travel.

The Coast Guard releases daily weather bulletins with suggestions for ship travel, but captains are under no obligation to follow the advice.

The Coast Guard issued such a bulletin on May 2, warning that waves could reach two meters in height near the port city of Puntarenas. Despite the rough conditions, a crew transporting chemicals for the fertilizer company Fertilizantes de Centroamérica (FERTICA) left port and capsized 150 meters from the coast. The Coast Guard was able to save the crew, but some of the toxic cargo was released into the sea.

An investigation has since revealed that the ship’s navigation permits had expired.

Just months earlier, Costa Rican authorities had to deal with another disaster at sea when a pleasure catamaran with 99 passengers capsized in high winds and rough seas 30 minutes after leaving port in Playa Herradura, on the country’s central Pacific coast. Three foreign tourists drowned in the accident and others were injured.

The crew did not hand out life jackets until the boat was already sinking.

Without a navigation law, the Costa Rican government has almost no recourse against a ship’s owners. Maritime navigation is currently governed by a series of administrative decisions that carry little weight in a court of law.

Recommended: Costa Rica’s lack of safety regulations comes into view after death of 6 tourists in January

“Right now Costa Rica lacks a law that adequately sanctions irregularities that happen during marine navigation and transport,” ocean conservation group MarViva said in a statement last week. “Despite the importance of an Aquatic Navigation law for the country, the governments over the last 10 years have not regarded it as important.”

In fact, the roots of the current bill go back further than 10 years, to another catamaran accident in 1997 that left two passengers dead. The catamaran had also run into rough seas, and the crew failed to hand out life vests at all, leaving them tied to the boat’s railings.

The accident shook the country and spurred calls for a navigation bill. But even in the face of the tragedy, it took lawmakers 13 years to complete a draft bill. And that bill has yet to be brought to a vote in the Legislative Assembly.

In response to the most recent catamaran accident in January, President Luis Guillermo Solís declared the bill a priority in the Assembly’s extraordinary session, which ran from Dec. 1 until April 30. But the bill was pushed aside in order to facilitate votes on infrastructure projects. Lawmakers from the ruling Citizen Action Party say the bill is again a priority following the recent accident.

“We, along with our other colleagues, are obligated to give [the bill] priority, ensure its passage and assure technical support,” PAC Lawmaker Marcela Guerrero said. “Additionally, we need to clarify regulations to ensure the minimum security of people who want to use this type of transport.”

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