LNG carrier damages coral reef in Puerto Rico grounding

A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker ran aground on a Puerto Rico coral reef while the vessel was slowing to pick up a pilot.

The Norwegian-flagged LNG tanker Suez Matthew grounded on the reef off Cayo Maria Langa, a small island near Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. The accident occurred Dec. 15, 2009, at about 0615.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the 920-foot ship ran aground while inbound to the Eco Electrica terminal pier at Guayanilla. Ricardo Castrodad, Sector San Juan public affairs specialist, said that at the time of the grounding all local aids to navigation were on station and working properly. Castrodad would not comment on the cause, pending a Coast Guard investigation. He said Guayanilla is a regular port of call for the ship.

This is the first time the ship grounded in Puerto Rico, Castrodad said. In December 2008, Suez Matthew lost propulsion off Cape Cod while en route to Boston.

The ship’s agent and operator both confirmed that the pilot had not yet embarked. “It was dark and there was no pilot aboard yet,” said Julio Martinez of Luis A. Ayala Colón, the ship’s agent in Guayanilla.

“The pilot and master were in constant communication the morning of the incident, and the pilot had asked the master to proceed inbound (from the pilot station) to pick him up,” said Carol Churchill, a spokeswoman for the vessel’s operator, Suez LNG NA LLC in Boston. “When the vessel slowed to safely pick up the pilot, steerage was reduced, and the vessel consequently touched bottom. The vessel was maneuvering at a slow bell. There were no mechanical problems with the vessel.”

The ship has a draft of about 40 feet. It grounded on the south side of Cayo Maria Langa. About 20 percent of the bow was aground while the stern remained in 150 feet of water. The crew shifted ballast to the stern and was able to refloat the vessel three hours later. Once afloat, Suez Matthew proceeded to the Eco Electrica terminal pier under its own power for inspection by contract divers. No damaged was found.

Although there were no injuries or pollution associated with the grounding, the coral reef was damaged. John Ewald, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said initial mapping efforts suggest that the damaged area could be more than 10,000 square feet. Ewald said that NOAA and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources “have authority to pursue emergency restoration and assessment of natural resource injuries related to the Suez Matthew incident under a number of laws and regulations. Under these statues the vessel owner is responsible for the costs associated with making the public and environment whole for the injuries.”

Alex Cruz, the local pilot who boarded the vessel following the grounding on Cayo Maria Langa, said the pilots have recommended to the Coast Guard that aids to navigation in the area be improved because of the number of reefs in the area.

John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff