NTSB blames maintenance and safety management for fatal barge explosion

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that a fatal explosion and fire aboard the B No 255 barge off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas on October 20th 2017 was the result of a lack of effective maintenance and safety management of the barge by the Bouchard Transportation Company.

It further found that inspections and surveys by both the US Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping lacked effectiveness, and that these and a failure to correct unsafe conditions, contributed to the accident.

The NTSB’s findings were released in Marine Accident Brief 19/07, stating that the explosion aboard articulated tug and barge Buster Bouchard/B No. 255 was caused by the ignition of flammable vapour that formed in a void space. The vapour was from crude oil that leaked into the void space from the number one port cargo tank through a corroded bulkhead.

Two barge crewmembers who were on the bow were killed in the explosion.

About 2,000 barrels of crude oil were either discharged from the barge into the water or were consumed in the fire that resulted from the explosion. The barge sustained more than $5m in damage and was scrapped after the accident. The tugboat was not damaged.

NTSB Director of Marine Safety Brian Curtis said that “the series of failures documented during this investigation highlights the need for effective safety management systems, proper vessel maintenance, and thorough regulatory examinations, adding that “if implemented, the recommendations issued as a result of this investigation will help to identify the failures that led to this accident and prevent similar casualties in the future.”

NTSB investigators documented cracks in the area of the original bulkhead that were not repaired prior to the explosion. These cracks apparently compromised the integrity of the cargo containment of the number one port tank.

Despite an inspection of the barge prior to the accident the vessel was permitted to continue to operate, despite an increased risk. The report found that American Bureau of Shipping surveys had highlighted discrepancies regarding the substandard maintenance and hazardous conditions of B. No. 255, but that there was no indication of collaborative communications between ABS and Coast Guard regarding deficiencies discovered by either organization prior to the explosion. NTSB said that a lack of communication between ABS and the Coast Guard prevented a coordinated effort to evaluate the structural condition of the tank barge.

The NTSB issued safety recommendations to both organizations seeking the establishment of joint policy and procedures to share information, including results and findings from audits, surveys, examinations, inspections and all other applicable activities related to vessel safety.

The NTSB issued one safety recommendation to Bouchard Transportation Co to evaluate their safety management system with a third party to identify deficiencies.