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NTSB: Coast Guard Could Have Done More to Prevent Galveston Oil Spill

Big freighters and small barges in the Houston Ship Channel near the site of the collision.

Dave Fehling,StateImpact

Big freighters and small barges in the Houston Ship Channel near the site of the collision

U. S. Coast guard investigators are reviewing testimony they heard during a four-day hearing held last week in Galveston. They’re trying to learn what might have prevented the collision of a freighter with a barge carrying fuel oil in March. Some of what they heard points a finger right back at the Coast Guard.

Along Galveston Bay, the big collision is still fresh in the minds of people who have a front row seat to the very busy Houston Ship Channel. John McMichael is a retired Navy submarine officer who manages Seawolf park on Pelican Island.

“They knew they were there. They were on the radar. It’s hard to fathom that it would have happened in today’s world,” McMichael told StateImpact Texas.

John McMichael, a retired Navy submarine officer who manages a park near where collision happened

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

John McMichael, a retired Navy submarine officer who manages a park on Pelican Island

But a collision did happen on a foggy Saturday this past March. A fuel barge collided with the much larger freighter, and the collision and resulting spill of 170,000 gallons of fuel oil coated portions of shoreline from Galveston to Matagorda.

The pilot of the big freighter and the skipper of the smaller barge were talking by radio about the collision they both knew was about to happen.

“Well if you keep on going I’m gonna getcha you … because right now I’m less than three quarters of a mile from you,” radioed the Summer Wind freighter to the barge, Miss Susan which responded, “Alright, glad I called you here. “

The audio, first obtained by the Houston Chronicle, was from the minutes leading up to the collision. Given the size and unstoppable momentum of the two vessels, the accident unfolded like a disaster in slow motion.

US Coast Guard investigators held a hearing in Galveston to learn what might prevent future accidents

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

US Coast Guard investigators held a hearing in Galveston to learn what might prevent future accidents

“[Miss Susan] I’m looking at you now. It don’t look good. [Summer Wind] Yeah, it don’t look good … ”

Not good at all, because it was too late to change course, and the freighter struck the barge broadside.

In hearings led by the U.S. Coast Guard last week in Galveston, the pilots and skippers at the helm of the vessels gave investigators insight into what led to the collision.

There was testimony that the barge skipper’s radio warnings of its position might not have been heard initially by the freighter. And that the freighter might have unexpectedly increased its speed, throwing off the barge’s calculations of how much time it had to clear the channel.

But there was a bigger issue brought up, not by the Coast Guard, but by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“I think the Safety Board has a vested interest in this,” said Rob Jones, a Senior Marine Investigator with the NTSB who was on the investigative panel holding the hearing.

Rob Jones is a senior marine investigator with the NTSB

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Rob Jones is a senior marine investigator with the NTSB

Jones cited past accidents in other ports in which the NTSB had recommended that the Coast Guard be more aggressive in monitoring ship traffic and communicating with vessels to try to head off collisions before they happened. But Jones said in this case, the testimony he heard indicated the Coast Guard had not done that.

“Everything I’m hearing from you is you’re given this authority, but you have no way to identify risk of collision. So why’s it written?“ Jones said as he questioned Coast Guard officers.

Identifying the risk of collision would be the responsibility of Coast Guard personnel in what’s called the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS). It’s the maritime equivalent of an air traffic control tower. From a room located at Ellington field, the Coast Guard monitors eight screens showing images from radar and video from 26 cameras up and down the Houston Ship Channel.

But the Coast Guard’s Lt. Commander Teresa Hatfield, who led the hearing, told StateImpact Texas it’s not up to the Coast Guard to give orders to ship pilots.

Lt. Com. Teresa Hatfield is chief of investigations division of USCG

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Lt. Com. Teresa Hatfield is chief of the investigations division of the US Coast Guard

“It is a very interesting and delicate balance, I would say, between those two things. We are not … are not pilots, are not ships captains, and they are not the ones out there on the water body that see everything that’s going on,” said Hatfield.

In testimony, the Coast Guard’s director of the Houston-Galveston VTS control center, Capt. Steven Nerheim, defended his personnel has having done all they could and said that despite tens of thousands of vessels using the Ship Channel every year, collisions he said are “vanishingly rare.”

Comments

  • sscutchen

    “It is a very interesting and delicate balance I would say between those two things. We are not…are not pilots and are not the ones out there in the air and on the tarmac that see everything that’s going on,” said no air traffic controller, ever.

    • Prorkba

      I believe the article falsely compares the VTS to ATC. ATC has radar sight of all aircraft while the VTS largely depends on ship communications about their whereabouts, speed, direction, etc. Though there are some automated parts of the VTS infrastructure, much of it’s about self reporting. That’s my understanding of it, anyway.

  • CoastGuardHouston

    It was great to see Dave Fehling at the hearing to help keep everyone in the loop with what the Coast Guard is doing, but he missed some helpful perspective of the issue and testimony provided throughout the hearing. Testimony from highly credentialed ship captains and the Coast Guard discussed the current needs, roles and capabilities of the Vessel Traffic Service, which is very different from an air traffic control center.

    For instance, it is common for waterway traffic in constrained areas to set an apparent collision course for one another with passing arrangements that you would not want a guy in a room watching monitors dictating over the radio. Hundreds of vessels a day operate safely in these close quarters with limited area to maneuver, changing water depths and movement, vastly differing capabilities and with obstacles and vessels not visible by radar. It is very different from being in the open air with a specific destination to land and nearly all other traffic/obstacles identified. You can’t exactly tell a freighter to become a submarine so they can pass under a tanker in shallow water at 5 knots.

    The Coast Guard is full of individuals who care about people and the environment and we are constantly working to save those in distress and protect them from distress. We are have a strong interest and desire to continually identify the safest and most effective way to move traffic through the channels. The Coast Guard is working closely with NTSB to ensure we are doing everything we can to maintain the safe and effective movement of commerce, fishing boats and recreational watercraft in the area.

    Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Kendrick
    U.S. Coast Guard
    Public Affairs Detachment Houston
    (281) 464-4810

    “This is an official United States Coast Guard posting for the public’s information. Our posting does not endorse this site or anything on it, including links to other sites, and we disclaim responsibility and liability for the site and its content.”

    • sscutchen

      The chicken maneuver used by closing vessels approaching each other in the Houston Ship Channel is very different from the hazard created by channels crossing each other. The Texas City “Y” is a notorious traffic confluence, and certainly should be within the authority of a third party traffic service. Especially since one exists. For example, Miss Susan could be required to request clearance to cross. Also, the submarine comment is insulting to those that have real interest in this hazard. So then, let’s get back to basics. If not to assist in traffic control, what are the roles and capabilities of the Vessel Traffic Service if it is not to be involved with vessel traffic

      • CoastGuardHouston

        My apologies for any offense. My comments were not intended to make light of the matter, but to clarify the huge difference between what the VTS specialists do in comparison to an air traffic controller. The comparison between them is very shallow and quickly falls apart as you look at what they do and how they do it. As previously mentioned, we care about the safe and effective operation of the channel and crossings and will always be looking for the best way to accomplish that task.

        The purpose of the Coast Guard marine casualty investigation and formal board hearing is to examine the causes of a marine casualty, make recommendations to help avoid a similar incident, improve overall maritime transportation safety, and promote safety of life and property at sea.

        Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Kendrick
        U.S. Coast Guard
        Public Affairs Detachment Houston
        (281) 464-4810

        “This is an official United States Coast Guard posting for the public’s information. Our posting does not endorse this site or anything on it, including links to other sites, and we disclaim responsibility and liability for the site and its content.”

        • sscutchen

          Thank you for taking the time to reply in this forum. I’m certainly not a professional mariner, but I do have a lot of small boat experience and passed my Power Squadron exam 40 some odd years ago. So I’m not just a ranter. And I do understand Chris’ point that one cannot pilot a ship from Ellington. But I still think there is a coordination and a verification of communications role that could be served. This seems to be the gist of the NTSB criticism, and I haven’t seen a response specific to it. I’d still like to understand how the folks at Ellington interact with channels traffic, and what, in the end, they are responsible for.

          • chris

            Rest assured that communication and coordination exist and 99.90% of the time all works as it’s supposed to. When it doesn’t every spectator wants to be a replay umpire. NTSB means well, but mandating to the USCG “to make the waterway safer”,without suggesting a realistic means or resources to do so, makes them rather ineffectual. They don’t like being ineffectual.

  • Chris

    Did Mr Fehling actually attend the hearings? This headline and recording snippet are recklessly one sided and conveniently out of context. Its mothers milk to those with no maritime experience, little knowledge and closed minds/agendas. The reasons for NOT micromanaging ship movements were thoroughly covered– repeatedly covered– during these hearings. There is little similarity to air traffic control and convincing the uninformed of that truth is clearly an impossible task for the Coast Guard.

    I hold that to ask VTS personnel to give rudder , engine, course direction to the ship captains and pilots would be morally indefensible in this narrow waterway. VTS personnel are not trained mariners, the data they can acces and relay is not pin point refined and there is much activity on the channel they do NOT see. They do not know what they do not know. Their training is extensive, but then so is that of pilots and ship captains. They provide valuable broad information which the ship drivers must then process in accordance .

    For as long as there have been ships on the sea, ultimate responsibility for the movements of those ships has been with the captains entrusted with them. Authority and responsibility. I dare not imagine the legal nightmares if we give VTS personnel the AUTHORITY to drive these vessels from afar. Where does maritime law then place RESPONSIBILITY?

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