They haven’t drawn a paycheck in months. Some haven’t set foot on dry land since January. But at least 10 crew members stuck aboard three tugboats near the Texas Gulf Coast aren’t any closer to going home—and their employer and the U.S. government are exacerbating the problem.
The trouble started in November, when crews of three articulated tug-barges—tugboats designed to hook into barges that carry crude oil, gasoline, and other cargo—were told they couldn’t come to shore in Texas after voyages to Florida and Pennsylvania. Their employer, New York-based Bouchard Transportation, hadn’t paid for the barges to dock and be reloaded with cargo. So they waited. And waited. Meanwhile, their employer stopped sending paychecks.
In a statement, Bouchard blamed the hiccups on financial problems; the expenses of years of oil spills, explosions, and lawsuits apparently have added up. Despite at least two decades of headline-grabbing incidents, the company has continued to operate, shipping fossil fuels across the Gulf and the Eastern Seaboard. Until now, that is.
Two of the vessels, the Danielle M. Bouchard and Kim M. Bouchard, are anchored five miles outside of Port Arthur, near the Texas-Louisiana border. A third boat, the Barbara E. Bouchard, is docked on Harbor Island near Port Aransas, but crew members are still stuck on board. Some crew members have contemplated jumping ship—they’re no longer being paid, after all—but U.S. Coast Guard authorities have threatened fines and felony charges for abandoning the vessels. According to KBMT, four crew members were relieved from the Danielle M. Bouchard last month, with others taking their place. A Coast Guard official told the Observer the agency was working to bring the remaining two boats to shore but didn’t provide details.
Sinclair Oubre is the executive director of Apostleship of the Sea, a ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Beaumont that advocates for seafarers. Oubre has been in contact with the captains of the two vessels anchored near Port Arthur. “The crew is caught in a bit of a jam,” said Oubre, a priest who has worked on similar vessels. For the moment, he said, the crews—six men on one boat and four on the other—have food and water and appear to be safe. Still, they’ve told Oubre that they’re concerned they wouldn’t be able to manage an emergency, such as a fire, with their worn-out crew. “It’s an all-time low emotionally,” one worker told a Beaumont TV station. “We’re not safe out here.”
Crews of vessels from foreign countries will occasionally become trapped on their boats in U.S. waters, Oubre said. But it’s an exceedingly rare problem for American citizens aboard a vessel owned by a U.S. company. “What makes this really unusual is that it’s been 30 years since I have seen a U.S. flag company been hit with such financial problems that they could not operate their vessels anymore,” he said.
The Coast Guard has threatened to take enforcement action against Bouchard Transportation, the largest independently owned ocean-going barge company in the country. So far, the company hasn’t budged. Bouchard did not return a request for comment from the Observer. Crew members aboard the stranded vessels declined to be interviewed, citing concerns that their employer would sue them if they spoke to media.
Workers on the stranded tug-barges would be better off—or they’d have a better chance of getting paid, at least—if the United States would join an international agreement for seafarers’ rights. The Maritime Labor Convention, created in 2006, enumerates protections such as the right to consistent pay and collective bargaining. “So when this thing went south, there was no one to help,” Oubre said. (Though many U.S. tug-barge operators are part of labor unions, Bouchard employees are not.) More than 90 other countries have ratified the agreement.
Even before this incident, Bouchard had a history of putting its workers in harm’s way. In 2007, as a Bouchard vessel was offloading gasoline at an ExxonMobil facility in Staten Island, New York, an explosion killed two barge operators and severely injured a third. A subsequent investigation found that the company failed to conduct preventative maintenance on the ship. Then, in 2017, flammable gas ignited on a tug-barge three miles outside Port Aransas, killing two people; 84,000 gallons of crude oil were burned in the fire or spilled into the Gulf. Again, federal investigators found that the vessel was “was poorly maintained and unsafe.” One Bouchard employee—the brother of one of the crew members killed near Port Aransas—cooperated with federal investigators and was fired by the company, a violation of whistleblower protection rules. A court directed the company to pay damages.
Bouchard has also been responsible for significant environmental damage. A barge hauling fuel oil ran aground in Buzzard Bay, Massachusetts, in 2003, spilling 98,000 gallons of fuel. Biologists concluded that the spill killed thousands of loons, terns, eiders, and other birds. Government agencies settled with Bouchard to pay $13.3 million to restore shorebird and shellfish populations in 2013.
In a statement released in February, Bouchard said it had a “financial plan” to dig itself out of the mess, adding that it considers its workers “vital.” As of Wednesday, the company has given no indication that it will pay wages or docking fees. And if history is any indicator, Bouchard likely won’t set its ship aright anytime soon.
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