Last year a towing vessel captain in the Houston Ship Channel tried to cross ahead of a bulk carrier, impeding its passage and causing a collision and an oil spill, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found. Operators of both vessels, along with Houston pilots, the area’s vessel traffic service and the Coast Guard, were all partly to blame, according to the agency’s accident report.
The 607-foot Summer Wind, with a Houston pilot on board, collided with the 70-foot tow vessel Miss Susan at 1235 hours on March 22, 2014. The bulk carrier was headed north to Houston to load grain. The towboat, moving two 300-foot tank barges with fuel oil, was traveling east to Port Bolivar in the ship channel. Visibility was limited by fog.
In the collision, the hull of the forward tank barge in the tow was breached, spilling 168,000 gallons of fuel oil into the water, the NTSB said in its June 2015 report. Two of Miss Susan’s crewmembers suffered minor injuries from inhaling fuel vapors. Losses sustained by all parties, excluding the cost of the spill response, were estimated at $1.38 million.
“Contributing to the accident was the failure of the Houston pilot and the Summer Wind master to set a safe speed given the restricted visibility and nearby towing vessel traffic, and the failure of the Miss Susan captain and the Houston pilot to establish early radio communication with one another,” the NTSB said.
Vessel Traffic Service Houston/Galveston failed to interact with the two vessels as the risk of collision grew, the investigators wrote. Miss Susan’s captain and the pilot aboard Summer Wind didn’t act to avoid a collision despite information from radar, automatic identification systems and radio communications revealing each other’s planned passages. Because it didn’t maintain an effective watch, Vessel Traffic Service Houston/Galveston didn’t recognize developing risks, the report said.
Given the tow traffic and poor visibility in the Bolivar Roads Precautionary Area at the time, the Summer Wind pilot shouldn’t have given a full-ahead order, the report said, and the bulk carrier’s master should have questioned the pilot’s decision to proceed at full ahead.
The Coast Guard’s failure to date to implement a vessel-separation policy for that section of water contributed to the collision, the report said.
“With several intersecting waterways, high-density vessel traffic and diverse types of vessels with differing speeds and maneuvering characteristics, the Bolivar Roads Precautionary Area is a high-risk section in Vessel Traffic Service Houston/Galveston’s area of responsibility,” the NTSB wrote.
The report said that entering full dimensions for tow configurations for each transit into automatic identification systems would improve the channel’s safety.
As for the spill, “federal oversight and company training of personnel exposed to hazardous materials were insufficient,” the NTSB reported. Miss Susan’s crewmembers didn’t fully understand the need for respiratory protection. The towboat didn’t have required direct-read testing equipment, and the crew’s review of the onboard material safety datasheet was incomplete. The crew’s training hadn’t prepared it to respond to an oil release.
Within the government, “inadequate federal oversight of mariner work safety on board uninspected towing vessels places crewmembers at greater risk of injury from exposure to hazardous materials,” the report said. However, the response by the Coast Guard, state and local agencies and oil removal organizations to the spill was effective, according to investigators who wrote, “Actions taken to recover spilled oil to minimize further environmental damage were timely and appropriate.”
After the report’s release, the Houston Pilots said they were prepared to work with the NTSB and port partners to improve safety. “Immediately following the collision, Houston Pilots reviewed the available facts and took actions to ensure commercial vessel safety,” Capt. Michael Morris, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots Association, said on June 9 of this year.
After the 2014 accident, a two-day workshop for pilots and tow captains in and around the Houston Ship Channel focused on vessel spacing, traffic management, communications and visibility restrictions.
“Another heavily discussed item was mariners’ continuous balance of safe speed and maneuverability,” Morris said. “Everyone agreed that these workshops should be continued.”
In a hearing a year ago, the Pilot Board Investigation and Recommendation Committee in Houston determined that Summer Wind’s pilot should be exonerated of any responsibility for the collision. This June, the PBIRC’s recommendation was pending approval by the Board of Pilot Commissioners for Harris County Ports in Texas.
The NTSB reiterated its earlier recommendations to the Coast Guard in addition to making new ones. In previously issued advice, the NTSB urged the Coast Guard to implement its new towing vessel inspection regulations with a requirement for safety management. In previously issued suggestions to the Coast Guard, reiterated in the June report, the NTSB said that as a result of its investigation, an “Open — Acceptable Response” on a needed policy about vessel separation in the Bayport Channel and in the Bolivar Roads Precautionary Area was changed to an “Open — Unacceptable Response” because that request hadn’t been met. The NTSB reiterated in June that precautionary areas on Houston Ship Channel nautical charts should be delineated to assist mariners.
Miss Susan is owned by Kirby Inland Marine of Texas. The owner of Summer Wind is Sea Galaxy Marine of Liberia, and the ship is operated by Cleopatra Shipping Agency of Greece.
In new recommendations, the NTSB said the Coast Guard’s towing vessel inspection rules should include hazardous materials training, requirements for protective gear and guidelines about mitigating exposure. The NTSB advised Kirby Inland Marine to provide direct-reading, air-monitoring equipment and training to crews moving hazardous materials so that they can identify combustible atmospheres, oxygen deficiencies and toxic substances. In addition, Kirby Inland should revise its hazardous waste training to include demonstrations of competence, and its employees should complete this training before serving on vessels with hazardous materials. The NTSB advised the American Waterways Operators to inform its members about the need for towing vessels with hazardous materials to carry direct-reading, air-monitoring equipment.
In its June 10 response, Kirby Inland said the NTSB has given the maritime industry new advice about including air-monitor equipment on towing vessels, and it goes beyond the equipment on all of the company’s boats now. “We look forward to receiving full details from the NTSB on this recommendation and have initiated discussions with the American Waterways Operators,” Kirby said in a statement. Kirby requires its crewmembers to have introductory and refresher Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response, or Hazwoper, instruction. “We’ve already assigned a team to review our Hazwoper training program to ensure that it meets the requirements of applicable regulations and provides our employees with the skills and knowledge to do their jobs safely,” Kirby said. “As additional information becomes available from the NTSB, we’ll evaluate how we can improve our training, policies and procedures to better prevent accidents.”
Cleopatra Shipping didn’t respond to requests for comment about the accident. In March 2014, Kirby and Cleopatra were sued in federal court in Galveston by commercial and sports fishermen claiming damages from a 12-mile spill caused by the collision. Last year, business owners in the area sued the vessel operators for negligence.