The operator of the bulk carrier that collided with a barge carrying fuel oil in the Houston Ship Channel was on probation for a 2011 federal criminal pollution violation.
Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd. operates the Summer Wind, a 585-foot Liberian flag vessel owned by Sea Galaxy Marine SA, Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Information Center, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Cleopatra, based in Pireas, Greece, pleaded guilty in September 2012 to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, according to a statement from federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, issued at the time. It was ordered to pay a $300,000 fine and serve a three-year probation term requiring implementation of an environmental compliance program.
According to the plea agreement entered at the time, Cleopatra was allowed to move for early termination of the probation after 24 months. There’s no indication from the court docket that the company has applied for that. Conditions of the probation included no further violations of federal, state or local laws and the funding of the compliance program.
Recent inspections of the Summer Wind recorded multiple deficiencies, according to records from Equasis, the European Union’s vessel database. A Coast Guard inspection in Galveston, Texas, on March 22, the day of the accident, found problems with the ship’s load lines and navigational equipment. Last year, authorities in Neapolis, Greece, noted deficiencies in the Summer Wind’s lifeboats, emergency lighting, fire-fighting equipment and instruction manual.
U.S. Attorney Walt Green in Baton Rouge said in a telephone interview that he is aware of the ship channel collision involving Cleopatra.
“They are on probation,” he said. “I can’t really say what we’re going to do or not going to do.”
There was no answer at numbers listed for Cleopatra in Greece and London.
In August 2011, the Stellar Wind, an oceangoing bulk carrier traveling from Spain to the U.S., discharged bilge water and other oily waste without using an oily water separator as required by federal and international law, prosecutors said. The chief engineer didn’t record the illegal discharges as required and made false entries indicating that the separator was used.
The 4,000-barrel spill occurred when a barge being towed by the vessel Miss Susan collided with the Summer Wind, causing one of the barge’s six tanks to leak fuel oil, the Coast Guard said. The Coast Guard is investigating.
The barge is owned by Kirby Inland Marine LP, which is responsible for the cleanup. The Oil Pollution Act applies even though the collision occurred in state waters, Beuerman said.
Matt Woodruff, director of government affairs for parent Kirby Corp., called Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson to vow resources to clean up the oil, according to both men. Courts and investigations will determine ultimate responsibility later, Woodruff said.
“When oil hits the water, it isn’t the time for people to be pointing fingers at each other,” Woodruff, who is based in Houston, said in a telephone interview. He said he had no information about how the accident happened.
“The oil came from our vessel,” Woodruff said. “That means we go clean it up and pay the bills. If down the road there’s a determination one party or the other was at fault, or some mixture of liability, that will have an impact.”
Kirby and Cleopatra were sued on Tuesday in Houston federal court by commercial and sport fishermen claiming damages from the weekend spill. The channel was partially reopened on Tuesday.
That lawsuit may start a protracted legal battle over who will bear ultimate financial responsibility for environmental damages, which could drag on for years.
“I think we found after the BP oil spill it’s very difficult to predict how that oil is going to behave,” Melinda Taylor, a law school lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in environmental issues, said in a telephone interview. “A lot of it depends on weather conditions, the type of oil that spilled, the weight of that oil, and the constituents in that oil.”
The spill will probably endanger migratory birds coming from Mexico, Central America and South America, said Robin Doughty, a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Galveston Bay is one of the major sites for migratory birds in the U.S.,” he said in a telephone interview. “The spill impacts the colonies that live in the area but also others that are migrating to the site, potentially exposing who knows how many birds to the oil.”