Barge company ordered to pay over US$15 million in damages caused by 2014 oil spill in Houston Ship Channel

Aerial photograph showing the aftermath of the incident in the Houston Ship Channel (Photo: US Coast Guard)

Houston, Texas-based shipping company Kirby Inland Marine has agreed to pay US$15.3 million in damages and assessment costs under the Oil Pollution Act to resolve US federal and state claims for injuries to natural resources resulting from an oil spill from one of its barges, after a collision caused by the company.

The United States and Texas concurrently filed a civil complaint along with a proposed consent decree. The complaint seeks money damages and costs under the Oil Pollution Act for injuries to natural resources resulting from Kirby’s March 2014 discharge of approximately 4,000 barrels of oil from one of its barges into the Houston Ship Channel at the Texas City “Y” crossing.

The complaint alleges that the spill resulted from a collision that occurred while a Kirby towboat, Miss Susan, attempted to push two 300-foot (91-metre) oil barges across the Houston Ship Channel in front of the oncoming Summer Wind, a 585-foot (178-metre), deep-draught bulk cargo ship that was already underway in the Channel.

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, resulting in lost recreational opportunities from Galveston-area beaches to beaches as far south as Padre Island National Seashore.

Kirby, the US Coast Guard, and the state of Texas were involved in extensive response and cleanup efforts, and Kirby has cooperated in the assessment of injuries to natural resources.

Under the proposed consent decree, Kirby will pay US$15.3 million as natural resource damages for the spill, which the federal and state trustees will jointly use to plan, design, and perform projects to restore or ameliorate the impacts to dolphins and other aquatic life, birds, beaches, marshes, and recreational uses along the Texas coast.

Kirby also has been paying the federal and state trustees for their assessment work and will reimburse the last remaining unpaid costs, as required under the Oil Pollution Act.

In a related Clean Water Act enforcement action in 2016, the United States on behalf of the coast guard secured a settlement with Kirby for US$4.9 million in civil penalties and injunctive relief measures to improve the company’s operations to help prevent future spills.

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