Bay pilots press effort to boost power in port

Proposed legislation to add docking control opposed by shippers

March 20, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Maryland bay pilots, who normally make their living guiding oceangoing vessels through the Chesapeake Bay, are mounting an aggressive State House campaign to expand their already considerable hold on the port of Baltimore.

Backed by an impressive contingent of lobbyists, the pilots are seeking a change in state law that would ultimately give them monopoly control of piloting and docking work in Maryland -- from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore.

Opponents say the measure is designed to increase business and income for the state's 58 bay pilots, who earn handsome salaries approaching $200,000 a year for part-time work.

"This is about greed; this is about power and money," said a legislator who asked not to be identified.

But the bay pilots say the bill establishes a fair licensing system for all pilots operating on the bay, one focused on safety concerns raised by federal authorities.

"Our issue is safety and accountability -- maintaining a safe, efficient and reliable piloting service," said Michael R. Watson, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

The pilots are skilled mariners who board cargo ships and guide them through the 158-mile trip up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. At the Francis Scott Key Bridge, another kind of pilot, one of the state's 10 docking masters, takes over the ship and guides it with the aid of a tugboat to a port berth.

The legislation, which has been embraced by both the bay pilots and the docking masters, would essentially merge the two groups under the auspices of the bay pilots association.

Senate passes bill

The bill -- which cleared the Senate last week and is pending in the House of Delegates -- has created an uproar in the Baltimore maritime industry, sparking impassioned testimony and angry words.

In the long run, port officials and others worry that the bill will give too much power to the bay pilots -- a group both respected and disliked by some in the harbor community because of the control they can exert over port shipping.

Shippers and state transportation officials oppose the bill, predicting that it could drive up costs here, potentially driving business away from the port.

Also battling the pilots are tugboat operators worried about losing income and control of their operations, and docking trainees who fear being shut out of a waterfront career.

Even so, several legislative leaders support the bill -- testament to years of groundwork by the bay pilots, who have sprinkled campaign contributions to key lawmakers and whose leaders have worked to develop relationships in Annapolis.

The battle is the latest of many over Chesapeake piloting that have been played out in the State House. The General Assembly established a state pilots board in 1787 to oversee those who practiced the "art of piloting in Chesapeake bay and the rivers thereof."

The current legislation was prompted by a directive from the U.S. Coast Guard that Maryland's docking pilots must be regulated by state or federal authorities.

After resisting for two years, the docking pilots -- who say they earn 15 percent less than bay pilots -- agreed this year to embrace an approach pushed by the bay pilots: to have the State Board of Pilots also regulate and license docking masters.

`Most logical place'

"We got to go somewhere, and the Board of Pilots is the most applicable, most logical place to go," said Leciel "Lee" Lowery, vice president of the Association of Northern Chesapeake Docking Pilots.

While the legislation makes clear that current docking pilots would be able to continue practicing their trade, the bill lays the groundwork for the bay pilots association to determine who would be able to do docking work, say many observers.

Critics point out that the pilots board is heavily dominated by bay pilots, who hold four of the panel's nine seats. Under the Senate-passed bill, the board would expand to 10 seats, with as many as five held by the pilots.

Because of that, as well as other provisions of the bill, the legislation appears over time to give the bay pilots association control over who would be trained and licensed as docking pilots.

"This is a power grab by the bay pilots to take over and monopolize the docking operations in the port of Baltimore," said Bruce C. Bereano, lobbyist for three tugboat companies in the port that are fighting the bill. "This is all about money."

Shipping companies who use the port say they fear that giving the bay pilots control of docking masters will drive up harbor costs.

Because three tugboat companies currently compete for business, their rates are kept in check, port officials say.

"It's going to increase costs coming into Baltimore," said Gene Johnson, general manager of China Ocean Shipping Co., one of the port's biggest shippers.

Loss of business feared

That assessment is shared by Maryland port officials, who fear that cost increases will drive business to other states.

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