First the company ran an old rusty barge to the point where vapors seeped out and it exploded killing two men and polluting waters near Port Aransas, Texas, in October 2017.
Then, the National Transportation Safety Board and Coast Guard found the fleet of barges owned by the company were so shot through with serious deficiencies that 10 of 25 barges were deemed unfit for service.
Then company officers punished the brother of one of the dead seamen for stepping forward to talk with investigators — only to be held liable for violating Whiste Blower laws.
And now the Coast Guard this month has stepped in and found that several of the company’s tug-barge rigs threaten the safety and water quality of both New York and Texas coasts and perhaps sites on the Mississippi and Gulf as well – and the company is not paying its officers and crew.
The Coast Guard has ordered the company to move rigs in Texas and New York to safer spots – but the company has said it can’t afford it. So some of the ships and crews are stranded, one for more than 80 days now.
“Oh wow, you want an update on Bouchard,” one safety inspector said. “You’re going to have to slim that down. They’ve got units in Texas, New York, on the Mississippi, in the Gulf… which one are you looking at?”
Welcome to ground zero of the American merchant marine where conditions thought once owned only by third-world countries surface again and again as the Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping continue to enforce very basic maritime inspections
At the center: Bouchard Transport, one of the nation’s largest barge and tug companies, responsible for moving millions of gallons of petroleum product across the Texas and New York waterfronts, now unable to pay for safe moorings and officers at the helm. Some crew have been on the small tugs since Thanksgiving.
“We’re used to seeing situations like this,” says one safety expert with knowledge of the incidents. “But not on United States flag operations.”
One of the most troublesome tug-barge rigs was moved to a safe mooring over the weekend in New York Harbor, one Coast Guard spokesman said. But other situations remain unresolved.
A crew and officers remain onboard a tug-barge rig a few miles offshore from Sabine Pass, Texas. The crew said at one point they were so desperate they might leave the tug.
The Coast Guard warned that this would be criminal, so the crew stayed. But there is no safe mooring in sight, so the ragged crew continues to ride on a questionably safe tug-barge rig loaded with petroleum product.
Bouchard did not return email requests for comments but said in formal statement that they are scrambling for money.
“For the past two years Bouchard has confronted tests the likes of which it has not faced in 100 years of history. “Today’s Sector NY/NJ Captain of the Port Order on just eight of our fifty one units is a further financial hurdle.”
The Coast Guard says it is simply enforcing rules the Coast Guard and the privately American Bureau of Shipping ought to have routinely enforced for years.
“They can’t operate barges and tugs that pose a risk to the environment, other ships and the lives of their crew and officers,” one safety expert said. “That’s all the Coast Guard is saying. They’re not picking nits here. These barges have real problems.”
A National Transportation Safety Board found the Texas explosion was due largely to corrosion that allowed fumes to leak and explode. The discovery caused the Coast Guard to investigate the Brouchard fleet and the findings showed the one stricken barge was not alone in deficiencies.
The NTSB report states:
“As a result of these expanded inspections, which were conducted from October 2017 to December 2018, the Coast Guard issued 251 deficiencies to 25 barges and placed operational controls on 10 barges, limiting or preventing their operation until the discrepancies were corrected.”
“One barge was issued 66 deficiencies, and another was issued 33 deficiencies despite both being inspected by the Coast Guard and classified by ABS. In addition, 5 of the 10 barges that were issued operational controls were transporting oil in bulk and had extensive corrosion discovered within cargo tanks and along the hull.”
The Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New York and New Jersey earlier this month ordered Bouchard to move three tug and fuel barge rigs from anchor in New York Harbor to a safer berth. That now has happened, the Coast Guard said, and they will stay there until additional safety inspections show they are safe.
Bouchard has been unable to keep safe fuel and manning levels aboard the units, the Coast Guard said. Moreover, there are inadequate contingency plans for emergency weather.
In effect, the Coast Guard was saying the barges might leak or crash, spilling tons of petroleum product into the harbor.
“My number one priority is to ensure not only the safety of the public and our waterways, but the health and well-being of the crews who do the difficult and hazardous work of operating these vessels,” said Captain Jason Tama, Captain of the Port of New York. “This is not an action we wanted to take, however, we have a responsibility to keep our waterways safe, and Bouchard’s inability to maintain safe operational conditions aboard these tugs and fuel barges has forced me to take this step.”
Bouchard Transportation company information says it is America’s largest independently-owned ocean-going petroleum barge company. The company was established in 1918 and remains family-owned and run by President and CEO Morton “Morty” S. Bouchard III.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the company and three executives, including Monty Bouchard, violated whistleblower rules by firing a seaman who had cooperated with a federal investigators. He was a brother of a crew member killed in the 2017 explosion.
The US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation report on the 2017 barge explosion is still pending. The Coast Guard report could recommend civil penalties or criminal charges if the board believes they are merited.
The Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping generally have enforced safety rules more diligently following what a Coast Guard investigation said was a lax inspection of the SS El Faro, an American flag ship that sank with 33 crew and officers lost in 2015.
In the whistle blower action, OSHA ordered Bouchard to pay a minimum of $250,000 in emotional distress and punitive damages, and back pay with interest, and an additional two years of lost wages.
OSHA also ordered Bouchard to refrain from making adverse statements. The company must also train its managers and employees about seamen’s rights.
“This case revealed troubling safety violations in the wake of a seaman’s death and it exemplifies how a culture of intimidation can have disastrous results for seamen,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Richard Mendelson. “Employers and vessel owners must know and respect that the Seaman’s Protection Act safeguards seamen’s cooperation with USCG and other safety investigations and the reporting of safety concerns.”