Tow operator disputes NTSB findings after barge breach at lock
Federal investigators determined that crew inattention was the probable cause of a barge accident at the Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that spilled nearly 2,800 barrels of crude oil.
Savage Inland Marine, then the operator of the towboat Savage Voyager and the barges SMS 30056 and PBL 3422, disputed those findings. The company has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the lock and dam, alleging negligence.
The accident happened at about 0355 on Sept. 8, 2019 within the lock located at mile 411.9 of the waterway near Dennis, Miss. The rake on barge PBL 3422 became caught on the lock’s upper gate sill as the water level dropped. The rake bent and ultimately failed, breaching a tank carrying crude oil.
Authorities closed the lock for 18 days to allow for a cleanup that cost almost $4 million. The barge needed about $400,000 in repairs. The six crewmembers aboard Savage Voyager were not injured.
In its accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the tow moved out of position while locking down. Exactly how is unknown. But the agency said towboat crew “did not effectively monitor and maintain the vessel’s position during its descent, resulting in the aft barge becoming hung on the upper gate miter sill.”
Savage, in a prepared statement, called the NTSB conclusions “speculative.”
Savage Voyager was downbound pushing two loaded crude oil barges when the tow entered the lock and dam at about 0345. The towboat positioned the barges stern to stern inside the 600-foot chamber, with PBL 3422 aft. The two barges together were 595 feet long.
Crew secured each barge to floating mooring bitts that rise and fall as the water level changes in the lock. Several crewmembers told investigators the barges were clear of a yellow line warning of the submerged sill.
With the barges secured, Savage Voyager moved to the starboard side of PBL 3422. Crew reported the maneuver went smoothly and the vessels did not shift as the towboat repositioned alongside the barge.
“If it wasn’t where it’s supposed to be, I would have seen it,” said the deck hand on watch, who like other crew was not identified in the report.
“The tankerman also reported that there was no shifting of the barges,” the NTSB said. “The pilot stated that he kept the starboard engine in neutral and the port engine ahead in order to keep Savage Voyager tight alongside the barge.”
Crew reported to the lock operator that the vessels were secured. The operator then reviewed the camera feed to confirm the aft barge was in position inside of the sill warning line before closing the gates and beginning the process for locking down 83 feet.
The deck hand, who was aboard PBL 3422, noticed the barge’s rake hung up on the concrete miter sill as the water level fell. He radioed to the towboat pilot, who pushed ahead to try and free the barge. The pilot then heard a loud noise and notified the lock operator, who began the nearly two-minute process of closing valves to stop the outflow.
“As the water continued to lower in the lock chamber, the rake of the barge was held in place while the rest of the barge descended, and the rake bent 45 degrees,” the report said. “As the deck hand stepped onto Savage Voyager, PBL 3422’s rake end slipped from the concrete miter sill and dropped into the water.”
Crew smelled crude oil while still inside the lock. Authorities closed the Tenn-Tom upriver and downriver and initiated a local spill response. The NTSB said 2,786 barrels of oil spilled, with 22 barrels unrecoverable.
Regulations and lock procedures give the lock operator control and oversight of the chamber. The lock operator also is required to ensure that vessels within the chamber are properly moored before starting the locking process.
There was 23 feet of water above the miter sill when locking started. Investigators determined it would have taken almost four minutes from the start of locking until the barge touched the sill. They compared that with the deck hand’s assertion that the barge hit the sill “maybe a couple seconds after” locking began.
That discrepancy suggested to NTSB investigators that the deck hand was not carefully minding the stern line. They also noted the tankerman did not realize the barge had shifted until after it was stuck.
“Had the deck crew been vigilantly monitoring the vessel’s position, they would have noticed the barge was out of position before it became stuck on the sill and could have alerted the pilot,” the report said.
Savage alleges the lock operator’s negligence caused the incident. Specifically, the company asserts that he failed to supervise the mooring of Savage Voyager within the lock chamber and failed to monitor the clearance between PBL 3422 and the north miter wall.
“Voyager was in the care, custody and control of the lock operator, and there was nothing the crew could do to avoid the accident short of not entering the lock,” the company’s statement said.
The Army Corps of Engineers declined to comment on the Savage lawsuit, which is still pending. The agency has no formal opinion on the NTSB findings, according to a spokesman.
Utah-based Savage sold its inland tank barges and towboats to Kirby Corp. in a deal that closed in April 2020. Savage retained its dry cargo and offshore fleets.