Barge incident prompts discussion on inter-agency communication

By Jordan Kline – Daily World writer
Saturday, January 6, 2007 1:13 AM PST
Thanks to expert seamanship, the Washington coast averted what could have turned into a disaster last week when the Nancy Jo, a barge carrying 1.4 million gallons of oil, broke loose from its tug boat in high swells 25 miles west of Ocean Shores.

Around 600 tug and barge vessels like the Nancy Jo cross Washington’s Pacific coast every year, 25 miles out to sea, out of sight and out of mind to the average person.

According to the Coast Guard, a tug losing its line is a rare ocurrence. Six barges have lost their tow lines in the last three years, caused by faulty cables, poor connections or even a Navy submarine clipping the line.

Nevertheless, the state Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard are investigating to find out what happened and what can be learned from the incident.

The five-man crew of the tug boat James T. Quigg was able to reattach the Nancy Jo to the tug after two hours of drifting using an emergency tow retrieval device known as an Orville hook, and both vessels made it to Portland without further incident.

But Ecology — the agency responsible for preventing and cleaning up oil spills in Washington waters — wasn’t notified of the incident until nearly two hours after the crew reattached the cable. The Coast Guard station in Westport was notified immediately after the tug lost the cable.

Luckily, Ecology’s oil spill response teams and emergency tug located in Neah Bay weren’t needed to respond to the Nancy Jo. But Curt Hart, spokesman for Ecology’s spill response team, said the breakdown of communication is frustrating.

“We would certainly like to know about incidents in a more timely manner … but there was no obligation under federal law that we had to be notified.”
Thanks to a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, oil tankers and barges are no longer required to notify the state when incidents pose potential environmental threats outside of the state’s 3-mile jurisdiction.

Hart said Ecology is only supposed to be notified in the case of an actual oil spill.

But what would have happened if the crew hadn’t been able to reattach the cable?

“Would we have made a difference if we’d known earlier? Could we have scrambled our tug earlier? These are some of the questions that we’re asking ourselves,” Hart said.

“If an oil spill happens, we will try to minimize the effects. But it really depends on the tools that we can get out there and how fast we can do that,” he added.
Lt. Adam Burst, the Coast Guard investigating officer assigned to the Nancy Jo incident, said there is an investigation under way, and that “there was no intentional disregard of the state authorities.”

“We have a memo of understanding where we do communicate with agencies like Ecology and the Emergency Management department,” he said. “I think what potentially could have happened was the tug crew were talking to some of the coastal units, and by the time it got to the main office here in Portland, the incident had already been taken care of.”

Burst said the Coast Guard does learn from incidents like the Nancy Jo, and a joint investigation with Ecology may lead to changes in both tug and barge regulations and communication protocol in the event of an emergency.
The Orville hook that saved the Nancy Jo became required equipment after the Nestucca lost 230,000 gallons of oil on Christmas Eve 1988. Its tow cable broke and the tug boat trying to reattach the cable punched a hole in it off Grays Harbor.

Burst said a double tow cable could be one of those new regulations. “It’s definitely something that we recommend. After the investigation, if our superiors think that’s necessary, they’ll reccommend changes to the law.”

Crowley Marine, the leading tug and barge company in the Northwest, already requires double tow cables for their barges.

In a press release, Ecology said they “will be working with the Coast Guard to convene a summit on oil spill program priorities.”

Hart said that emergency contact protocol will be “one of the items on the agenda.”

Jordan Kline, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 532-4000 ext. 111 or

Copyright © 2007 The Daily World.

~ by fredfelleman on January 6, 2007.

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