Kirby to Pay Additional $15.3 Million in Damages from 2014 Collision
Texas-based barge company Kirby Inland Marine has agreed to pay $15.3 million in damages to resolve federal and state claims from a 2014 incident in which a Kirby barge was found responsible for causing an oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel. Under the proposed consent decree, Kirby will pay for natural resource damages from the spill, which the federal and state trustees will jointly use to plan, design, and perform projects to restore or ameliorate the impacts. Separately, Kirby also has been paying the federal and state trustees and in 2016 was fined $4.9 million by the U.S. Coast Guard in civil penalties and injunctive relief measures to improve the company’s operations to help prevent future spills.
The fines and penalties are related to a March 2014 accident in the Houston Ship Channel. A Kirby towboat, the Miss Susan, attempted to push two 300-foot-long oil barges across the Houston Ship Channel in front of the oncoming M/V Summer Wind, a 585-foot-long deep-draft bulk cargo ship that was already underway in the Channel. The bulker struck one of the barges resulting in a discharge of approximately 4,000 barrels (168,000 gallons) of oil.
Damaged barge after the 2014 collision (US Coast Guard photo)
The oil flowed from the Houston Ship Channel into Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, polluting waters and washing onshore from the collision site down to Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi. The oil spill caused significant impacts and injuries to the Texas coastline including the wildlife refuge on Matagorda Island, and to aquatic and terrestrial habitats, as well as to dolphins and migratory birds.
The oil spill also forced the closure of the Houston Ship Channel and disrupted recreational uses of the Texas coastline. Kirby, the Coast Guard, and the State were involved in extensive response and cleanup efforts, and Kirby has cooperated in the assessment of injuries to natural resources.
“This case illustrates that the stakes are high, the harms are serious, and the United States and its state partners will diligently pursue and secure compensation for injuries to natural resources resulting from oil spills,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The busy Houston Ship Channel has been the site of numerous accidents. Fourteen collisions occurred in the Channel in 2015, twice as many as in 2014 with an average of 60 vessels per year reporting loss of propulsion. In 2019, there was a similar accident during which an LPG tanker and a tug pushing two barges collided near Bayport, Texas. One of the barges capsized and an estimated 9,000 barrels of the chemical were released into the Channel, which had to be closed for almost three days.
Recently, a contract was awarded to being a long-planned upgrading of the Channel. Work began in May 2021 and will include widening sections of the 52-mile-long waterway and also dredging. Annually they reported that there are approximately 20,000 ship movements along the Houston Ship Channel.