Coast Guard Orders Four Bouchard Tows Tied Up
Citing problems with manning and available onboard fuel, the Coast Guard issued Captain of the Port (COTP) Orders in four ports to Bouchard Transportation Company of Melville, N.Y. A Coast Guard spokesman called the situation “unprecedented.”
The orders required several of Bouchard’s articulated tug-barge (ATB) units to be moored at a safe berth if adequate manning and fuel levels are not maintained.
Affected vessels include three ATB’s in New York, two on the Mississippi River below New Orleans, two anchored in the Gulf of Mexico off Sabine Pass, Texas, and one in Corpus Christi.
The company reportedly is financially strapped. Lt. John Edwards, a public affairs officer at Coast Guard Eighth District in New Orleans, said Bouchard has “suspended all operational and maintenance operations,” at least for vessels in the Eighth District including coastal Louisiana and Texas.
Crews of the Bouchard units complained that they have not been paid since January 1. One captain told The Waterways Journal that Bouchard promised to pay back wages “by the end of the month [February] or shortly thereafter.”
Captains at Bouchard often arrange crew changes, and one said he “could not advise crews at home to come back to work if they had second jobs at home and were getting paid.”
“The Coast Guard does not intervene in labor [pay] disputes,” Edwards said. “Our primary concern is the safety of the crews and safe operation of the waterways. The Coast Guard is concerned about proper provisions and water for the crews.”
In response to a request from The Waterways Journal, ABS confirmed that it stopped performing all classification/certification work for Bouchard on February 13.
Actions In New York
U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York marine inspectors boarded all vessels owned and operated by Bouchard in the Captain of the Port (COTP) zone on January 29.
Bouchard crews reported “critical operational conditions such as low fuel and lube oil levels, potential stability concerns and unauthorized vessel-to-vessel fuel transfers.” Inspectors also heard crews talk of abandoning the vessels because they had not been paid.
Operating “with low fuel and lube oil reserves and no contingency plan to adjust for significant weather changes poses a hazard to the port,” Capt. R.C. Sansone, acting COTP for the Port of New York and New Jersey, wrote in issuing an initial order.
That initial order gave all anchored Bouchard towing units in the port 24 hours to submit a plan to moor at a safe berth or “restore safe operational status.”
After Bouchard complied, the initial order was rescinded the next day.
Then on February 13, the Coast Guard ordered three Bouchard ATBs to immediately move from anchorage in New York harbor to safe berths.
“As a result of recent safety checks, the Coast Guard has determined the operational condition of these vessels poses a risk to safety of New York and New Jersey waterways,” the order said.
“Specifically, Bouchard has been unable to consistently maintain safe fuel and manning levels aboard these vessels, and does not have adequate contingencies in place for emergency weather or other conditions requiring movement within the port,” a Coast Guard statement said.
Vessels subject to the COTP order were the Ellen Bouchard and barge B-262; Evening Star and B-250; and the Frederick Bouchard and B-260.
Actions In New Orleans
Edwards said there were concerns that unpaid crews onboard Bouchard vessels within the Eighth Coast Guard District had threatened to abandon their vessels, leaving the vessels with less than the required minimum manning requirements.
“Having crews abandon their vessels creates an unacceptable risk to pollution and maritime commerce,” Edwards said. “The Mississippi River is vital to commerce and if unmanned, a vessel could sink or break away from anchor, disrupting commerce.”
In New Orleans, the Bouchard Girls and its barge, the B-295 were boarded the evening of February 14 and ordered to tie up at an Associated Terminals dock below New Orleans in Violet, La., near Mile 83 Above Head of Passes (AHP).
Yellowfin Marine Services of Houma and Marquette Transportation were scheduled to conduct “dead ship” tows of the tug and barge units to a dock in Leeville, La., on Bayou Lafourche above Port Fourchon, where residual cargo and slops will be removed from the tugs and barges.
Not all fuel and lube will be removed, Edwards explained, because “we want to make sure once the tugs are mechanically sound they can operate.”
A second Bouchard unit, the Donna J. Bouchard and its petroleum barge B-272, was anchored nearby at Nine Mile Anchorage.
Both vessels on the Mississippi River were subject to Notices of Federal Assumption (NOFA) in which the Coast Guard is “federalizing,” or assuming responsibility for, the vessels.
The NOFA was issued by Capt. Kristi Luttrell, Commander of Sector New Orleans, on February 14. After Bouchard appealed the COTP Orders, Capt. Luttrell rejected Bouchard’s appeal, Edwards said.
The Bouchard Girls had a seizure order enacted on December 27 from the U.S. Marshals, Edwards added.
“This seizure was a result of a private entity that made a claim against the vessel through the Department of Justice and was not something the Coast Guard was involved in,” Edwards said.
Funding for the federal response comes from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
Action In Texas
In addition, two Bouchard ATBs under COTP orders are at anchor off Sabine Pass: the Danielle M. Bouchard with the B-245 and the Kim Bouchard with the B-270.
On February 9, Marine Safety Unit Port Arthur received notification that the master of the Danielle M. Bouchard and Barge B No. 245 “declared that the vessels were critically unsafe.”
The master’s allegation was the ”crew on board the Danielle M. Bouchard is unable to respond to an emergency because some crew members departed the vessel without replacements.”
Two crew members reportedly paid $1,100 to have a boat deliver them to shore.
Captain of the Port Order 010-20, issued by Capt. J.M. Twomey on February 10, added the captain of the Danielle M. Bouchard “threatened to abandon post while at anchorage in violation of 33 CFR 164.19.”
Similarly, Capt. Twomey issued a COTP Order 011-20 to the Kim Bouchard and B-270, because crew threatened to abandon that vessel while also anchored offshore.
The COTP Orders required the vessels to maintain adequate manning by the next day, February 11, or transit to a safe berth. Both vessels were required to maintain communication with Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) “until matters are resolved.”
The Danielle M. Bouchard had a crew change February 20, but neither the off-going nor on-coming crews have been paid since January 1.
In Corpus Christi, the Barbara E. Bouchard with the B-240 is moored at the Martin Energy Service Dock on Harbor Island in Port Aransas.
News reports from 3News on KIIITV, a local channel, said the crew has been onboard and unpaid for more than 45 days, but the Coast Guard will not let them leave until properly relieved. It also said Martin Energy filed a lien against the vessel.
A crewman answering the vessel phone on February 22 said he could not talk to the media and would not confirm if there was a recent crew change.
A lawsuit seeking class-action status for back pay has been filed by New York attorney Paul Hofmann of Hofmann & Schweitzer on behalf of several Bouchard employees.
In responding to COTP orders in New York, Bouchard issued the following statement: “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.
“Financial struggles are trial enough, but they are worse when they affect or worry our employees. We are working with financial and technical advisors to address the challenges at every level of our business.
“Our employees, those who have been with us for years, those new to us in this moment of extreme duress are vital, and their forbearance, more than we have a right to ask for.
“Today’s COTP Order does not change our focus. Please know that we are working everyday with clients, creditors, and the authorities to put our house aright. We have a financial plan and a clear understanding of and commitment to all those who work with, support and rely upon us.
“Thank you for the opportunity to address your important and painful question.”
Bouchard Transportation‘s safety culture came under scrutiny during crewmembers’ testimony at a two-week Coast Guard hearing following the October 20, 2017 explosion of the B-255 while it was hauling up its anchor, which killed two crewmen on the tank barge.
Testimony revealed before the explosion the B-255 was in a shipyard. Prior to leaving the shipyard, a tug captain walked off the job rather than sail with the barge because he felt shipyard work was not completed and leaving the barge in an unsafe condition.
A second captain expressed the same fears, but stayed only after the office repeatedly asked him to stay for the voyage, and assured him he would be relieved before the barge began working, according to the Coast Guard hearing testimony.
Another outcome of the explosion was the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the company and three of its officers violated the whistleblower protection rules when it retaliated against a seaman who cooperated with a federal investigation into the explosion, reported the maritime blog gCaptain.
The whistleblower, a Bouchard employee, was a brother of one of the deceased and claimed he was fired for cooperating with investigators.
Under the Seaman’s Protection Act, reporting violations of maritime safety laws and regulations, cooperating with Coast Guard safety inspectors and providing information to the Coast Guard about facts related to any marine casualty resulting in death are protected activities, the article said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation concluded the probable cause of the explosion was a lack of effective maintenance and safety management of the barge by Bouchard Transportation Company, the blog said. The NTSB also found fault with inspection oversight by the Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).
Consequences Of Violating COPT Orders
In the COTP Orders issued at Sabine Pass, the Coast Guard outlined possible fines for seamen leaving a vessel undermanned in violation of the order.
It includes a maximum civil penalty of $94,219 for each violation in addition to a Class D felony punishable by up to six years in prison with additional fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for an organization. It can also result in a loss of mariner credentials.
“I would like to make it very clear that the Coast Guard is not pursuing vessel masters’ or the crews’ licenses for their inability to follow Captain of the Port Orders,” Edwards said.
“We are understanding of this difficult situation that Bouchard Transportation Company has put them in and are in regular communication with the crews to ensure their safety through daily welfare checks,” he continued.
“We are grateful to the mariners who continue to stand their watches and are doing their best to weather this situation,” he said.
“The Coast Guard recognizes that the crews of these ships are responsible mariners who understand their responsibility to the waterways and, given this unprecedented situation, the Coast Guard is interested in the crew’s safety more than penalties and fines,” Edwards concluded.
In a separate email to The Waterways Journal, Daniel Henry, a public affairs officer at Coast Guard Sector New York, also expressed a strong interest in the situation the mariners were facing.
“We have no interest in taking enforcement action against hard-working professional mariners that are trying to do the right thing in a very difficult situation.” Henry said.
“Our focus is ensuring the safety and security of the port,” Henry added. “As always, if a mariner feels their situation is unsafe, they should contact the Coast Guard immediately.”