Barge Spills fuel oil on approach to Cape Cod Canal

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
A barge being towed by a tug spilled an estimated 928 barrels of No. 6 fuel oil in Massachusetts' Buzzards Bay on April 27.

The tug Evening Tide was headed north with the 376-foot barge Bouchard-120 on a 1,000-foot towline when the spill occurred. The barge was carrying 97,000 barrels of oil.

The Coast Guard is looking into the possibility that the barge struck bottom on a submerged ledge. There is a great deal of shallow water in this area, including two reefs, Hens and Chickens, and Sows and Pigs. All of these ledges are charted and well-known features in this busy waterway. The barge was drawing 32 feet at the time.


A second Bouchard barge is tied up alongside Bouchard-120 during a lightering operation to remove oil from the leaking vessel. The single-hull Bouchard-120 is believed to have struck a submerged ledge while being towed by Evening Tide, a Bouchard tug.

According to the Coast Guard, at approximately 1630, the crew of a nearby tug reported to Evening Tide's master that there was an oily sheen on the water astern of the barge. The tug and barge crew verified the report and confirmed that the No. 2 starboard tank was leaking.

The master of the tug initiated its vessel response plan and reported the spill to the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Providence, R.I., at about 1730. After the oil was spotted, the tug and leaking barge traveled approximately 10 nm up the bay, from the vicinity of Cuttyhunk Island to designated Anchorage Area Lima. The barge left behind a slick about 11 nm long and 2 nm wide.

Once anchored at Lima, the crew began internal transfer of the remaining oil from the damaged tank. Hydrostatic pressure prevented the barge from taking on water.

At 2335, the tug Jaguar arrived on the scene and placed 1,500 feet of 16-foot boom around the barge. Jaguar is based in New Bedford, Mass.

Maine Responder, a specially designed oil-spill vessel based in Portland, Maine, and owned by Marine Spill Response Corp., arrived on the scene at 0740 the following day. Clean Harbors Inc. of Braintree, Mass., was also involved in the cleanup effort.

Evening Tide and Bouchard-120 were en route from Philadelphia to the Mirant Canal Station power plant on the Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich, Mass., when the incident occurred.


An oil-smeared cormorant rescued by cleanup crews. The spill of No. 6 fuel oil also forced the closure of shellfish beds in Buzzards Bay.

The physical evidence suggests that the hole in the barge was the result of an impact rather than a structural failure. Forrest Ferrill, owner of Frogmen Divers and Marine Service Inc., a company contracted by Bouchard to inspect and temporarily repair the gash, said, "She definitely hit something. The hole was on the bottom of the hull, starboard of the center partition. It was like a puncture and looked like it landed on something hard … It was definitely not a stress fracture."

According to a spokesman for the Coast Guard's Joint Information Center in Cape Cod, the barge apparently struck an underwater object, causing a 12-by-2-foot hole in the No. 2 starboard tank.

Evening Tide is not required to undergo Coast Guard inspections, but both the captain and crewmembers were experienced and qualified operators. The barge is an inspected vessel.

American Bureau of Shipping records for Bouchard-120 show that the barge passed an annual hull survey in September of 2002.

If the tug did in fact strike an object, it is unclear why the crew did not feel any impact. Moses Calouro, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who spent time working on Bouchard barges, noted, "It is very strange that they hadn't felt something when they struck." Calouro is also president of Maritime Global Net, a shipping industry website and maritime consulting firm in Bristol, R.I.

Bouchard-120 and Evening Tide are owned by Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc. of Hicksville, N.Y. The family-run company operates 17 tugs and 30 barges, and has been in the marine transportation business since 1918. Its vessels routinely move petroleum products through Cape Cod Canal.

The company has a history of accidents, including spills in Buzzards Bay in 1975, 1978 and in 1990, when a barge ran aground on Cleveland Ledge.

In February of this year, a Bouchard barge exploded at an ExxonMobil fuel-transfer station on Staten Island, killing two people and injuring one. A Bouchard barge was also involved in the spill of 7,800 barrels of oil in Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1993 after a collision with two other vessels.

In addition to investigating the cause of the accident, the Coast Guard will also be looking at an error the company made when reporting the amount of the spill. Bouchard originally reported that the spill amounted to 350 barrels. The company's estimate was then changed to 2,333 barrels on May 19, three weeks after the incident.

"Obviously, the difference is significant, and like everybody else, we want to know why," said Coast Guard Capt. Mary Landry, scene coordinator for the spill response effort.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston confirmed that it has launched a criminal investigation that will examine "all aspects of the oil spill." The federal investigators will be working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Attorney General's office and the Massachusetts Environmental Police.

On June 17, 2003, Bouchard again revised its estimate of the amount of oil spilled, this time down to 928 barrels. The most recent estimate came as the result of an independent analysis commissioned by Bouchard, according to Suzanne Tavani, the company's spokeswoman.

The initial estimate of 350 barrels was based on measurement of lost liquid in the cargo tank, Tavani said. This measure did not differentiate between oil and water in the tank. Such a measurement "may result in an understated net cargo loss," she said.

The estimate of 2,333 barrels was based on loading and discharge information. This figure was subject to overstatement, she explained, because it did not include oil transferred from Bouchard-120 to another barge following the accident.

Buzzards Bay and its adjacent estuaries form an extremely fragile ecosystem. The bay supports a $4 million dollar shellfishing industry. Most shellfish beds were closed to harvesting following the accident, many of which have since reopened. The spill has also taken its toll on birds residing in salt marshes and the shoreline surrounding the bay. Two species of primary concern are the roseate tern, which is listed by the federal government as an endangered species, and the piping plover, which is listed as threatened.

About 2 billion gallons of petroleum products pass through Cape Cod Canal in barges and tankers each year, according to Francis Donovan, canal manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many of these vessels are single-hulled and are scheduled to be phased out of service by 2005 under the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The costs of double-hull conversion and new construction are high. In testimony before the U.S. Senate in January, Thomas A. Allegretti, president of American Waterways Operators, said that converting a 140,000-barrel, single-hull barge can run as high as $13 million. Also, because a double-hull barge is larger than a single-hull barge with the same carrying capacity, operators must invest in larger and more expensive tugs to tow the equipment.

Bouchard currently has 30 barges in its fleet, and 9 of them have double hulls. The company has two double-hulls under construction and a third being converted from single to double hull. Industry-wide, more than two-thirds of the U.S. tank-barge fleet is double-hulled.

Bouchard has been working with the Coast Guard, local and state authorities in the cleanup effort, which will cost more than $32 million, according to estimates.

On May 6, Bouchard-120 was towed to the Esco fuel terminal in Sandwich, Mass., where divers installed a wooden patch so that the vessel could be moved to New York for permanent repairs. However, when the barge was moved back out into the strong currents in the Cape Cod Canal, the patch broke loose. A more secure patch will be installed before the barge is moved again.

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