Spaced City

Two Barges Collided Near the Houston Ship Channel. Again.

It's happened again. On Monday morning another pair of barges smacked into each other near Bolivar Penninsula, sparking a fire on one of the barges. There were two tugboats pushing four barges  near the entrance of the Houston Ship Channel when one of the boats lost power. After two of the barges collided, a fire erupted on the barge that was loaded up with more than one million gallons of naptha, a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture. 

This is the third accident in or near the Houston Ship Channel this year — there were two in March — but it has come at a particularly interesting time, considering the National Transportation Safety Board just issued a report pointing out that the U.S. Coast Guard has consistently failed to step in and try to prevent these collisions. That might not be that big a deal if it weren't for the fact that the Coast Guard holds the authority to track vessels and try to prevent accidents like the one that happened this morning. It also has a branch set up specifically to keep an eye on — but not interfere with — traffic in the Houston Ship Channel.  

The branch of the Coast Guard charged with this responsibility, the Vessel Traffic Service, monitors the Houston Ship Channel by watching a fleet of cameras stationed all over the Houston Ship Channel from the confines of Ellington Air Field. But the Coast Guard doesn't actually tell boat captains minor details like whether they're about to smash into another vessel or not. Why? Well, because it's supposedly not their job, according to StateImpact Texas.

That looked bad enough when the first major accident happened last year. On a foggy morning in March 2014, two barges collided in the Houston Ship Channel and more than 170,000 gallons of fuel oil was dumped into Galveston and Matagorda bays. During the investigation hearings held by the Coast Guard in Galveston in June 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board ultimately held the U.S. Coast Guard responsible for the spill.

The National Transportation Safety Board went a step further in its new report on the accident, noting that the board had been urging the Coast Guard for years to be more active in monitoring ship traffic and in talking to vessels to try to head off collisions before they happened, according to a report issued just last month. 

Despite that sound scolding during the U.S. Coast Guard's own hearings on the March 2014 accident, nothing was changed in the U.S. Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service process. Then in March 2015, there was another collision in the Houston Ship Channel. One of the barges was loaded with more than 200,000 gallons of toxic chemical called MTBE, a gasoline additive. None of the MTBE actually spilled during that accident, but it indicated once again that nothing had actually changed in how the Coast Guard handles traffic on the water. And now we've had another wreck that briefly shut down a key portion of the Houston Ship Channel. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is continuing to presumably watch these accidents as they happen, while doing nothing to stop them. 

It's still unclear whether any of the naptha, a petroleum product that evaporates quickly and can irritate the eyes and lungs, was actually spilled in the latest accident. The fire is out, though. Emergency workers dumped thousands of gallons of water on the flames and fought the fire for four hours before finally getting it under control. 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray