Kirby Inland Marine L.P. will pay $4.9 million in Clean Water Act civil penalties and implement fleet-wide operational improvements to settle claims stemming from a 4,000-barrel (168,000-gallon) oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel in March 2014, said officials at the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Coast Guard.

The spill occurred March 22, 2014, when a Kirby tow boat, the Miss Susan, was pushing two 300-foot oil barges in the “Texas City Y” area of the Houston Ship Channel in fog conditions, officials said in the consent decree lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

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Despite detecting the nearby presence of a 585-foot bulk cargo ship, the Summer Wind, traveling up the Houston Ship Channel, Kirby’s tow boat and barges tried to cross the channel in front of the cargo ship.  

As a result, Kirby’s lead oil barge was struck by the cargo ship and approximately 4,000 barrels of heavy marine fuel oil spilled out of the barge into the waterway. From there, oil flowed out of the channel and spread down the Texas coastline.

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Approximately 160 miles of shoreline ended up oiled as a result of the spill, including sensitive marsh habitat, the national wildlife refuge on Matagorda Island, Mustang Island State Park and Padre Island National Seashore.  A full assessment of the injuries caused by the spill to marine and terrestrial natural resources is ongoing and will be addressed separately.

“This settlement sends a clear message that vessel owners and operators have a responsibility to protect our waters, people and the environment from oil spills and those who violate that duty will be held accountable under the law,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the DoJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The remedial measures in this agreement will upgrade navigational equipment, provide employee training, and improve operational practices across an entire fleet of vessels.”

“This case illustrates the inherent risk in transporting oil and other chemicals along our waterways,” said Eighth Coast Guard District Commander, Rear Adm. David Callahan. “The Coast Guard remains committed to enforcement, prevention and response with regards to our nation’s waterways and natural resources.”

In addition to payment of the civil penalties, Kirby in the consent decree committed to improve its operations across its entire fleet of hundreds of vessels operating in the inland waters of the United States. These remedial measures require Kirby to install enhanced navigational equipment on vessels, provide employee training on the new and enhanced equipment, provide additional navigation skills training, including a simulator-based exercise involving a Texas City Y scenario and improved operational practices such as entering complete tow dimensions in each vessel’s automatic identification systems before embarking on every transit. As part of the settlement, Kirby also agrees to waive any limits on its liability under the Oil Pollution Act related to the oil spill incident at issue in this case.

The remedial measures and the penalties Kirby will pay under the consent decree are in addition to the costs the company has already incurred or will incur to clean up the oil spill, reimburse federal and State response efforts, compensate victims of the oil spill and compensate the public for injuries to natural resources.

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