Troubles continue for financially distressed Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc., one of the nation’s largest oceangoing tug and barge operators.
Port captains in four U.S. Coast Guard sectors — New York, New Orleans, and Port Arthur and Corpus Christi, Texas — have taken action to secure the safety of several of the Melville, N.Y.-based ATB units that had been lying idle in local anchorages for many weeks, with unpaid crews aboard.
Further, several Bouchard employees sued the company for unpaid wages. According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Feb. 11, the group and its attorneys seek class-action status for the suit. The mariners stated they had not been paid since Jan. 1, and that a payroll administrator had told them, “Bouchard would not be paying for the work the seamen on the fleet of Bouchard boats would be performing and had already performed in February 2020.”
Attorney Paul T. Hofmann of the New York law firm Hoffmann & Schweitzer, who filed the suit, said in early March that Bouchard had not responded to the lawsuit and additional Bouchard mariners had signed on to the class action. To his knowledge, none of the crewmembers had been paid as of March 3.
Bouchard did not respond to WorkBoat’s repeated email and phone requests for comment but published a statement on its website on Feb. 14: “The past two years Bouchard has confronted tests the likes of which it has not faced in 100 years of history. Today’s (Feb. 13) Sector NY/NJ Captain of the Port Order on just eight of our 51 units is a further financial hurdle. Financial struggles are trial enough, but they are worse when they affect or worry our employees. We are working with financial and technical advisers to address the challenges at every level of our business. . . . Please know that we are working every day with clients, creditors and the authorities to put our house aright. We have a financial plan and a clear understanding of and commitment to all those who work with, support or rely upon us.”
Here’s what Bouchard is dealing with in different U.S. ports:
- New York Harbor: Bouchard’s statement was posted in direct response to a Feb. 13 order from Capt. Jason Tama, captain of the Port of New York, requiring that three ATB units be moved out of the anchorage and moored at safe berths because Bouchard, the Coast Guard said, was unable to maintain safe fuel and manning levels on these vessels and did not have contingency plans for moving them in case of emergency. Those three ATB units — tugboat Ellen S. Bouchard with barge No. 262, Evening Star with barge B. No. 250 and Frederick F. Bouchard with barge B. No. 260 — were moved the following day to docks at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and Staten Island’s Homeport. In early March Daniel L. Henry, public affairs officer for USCG Sector New York, said that all Bouchard ATBs in New York Harbor, except one, J. George Betz, had been moored. All except Rhea I. Bouchard still had crews aboard. The Coast Guard was continuing to monitor Bouchard vessels in New York Harbor. Henry said he understands that the requirement that crews remain aboard is stressful, though necessary. “We have no interest in taking enforcement action against hardworking professional mariners that are trying to do the right thing in a very difficult situation. That said, each case is different, depending on the vessel they are on, the manning levels of the vessel, and its specific location and operations. Our focus is ensuring the safety and security of the port. As always, if a mariner feels their situation is unsafe, they should contact the Coast Guard immediately.”
New Orleans: On Feb. 14, Capt. Kristi Luttrell, commander of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans and captain of the Port of New Orleans, issued Notices of Federal Assumption (NOFA) for two Bouchard ATBs — tugs Donna J. Bouchard with barge No. 272 and Bouchard Girls with barge B. No. 295 — that had been at anchor outside the port since mid-November. According to Lt. John Edwards, public affairs officer for Coast Guard District 8, the orders said that the Coast Guard would take the vessels and federalize them to clean any potential pollution out of the barges and make them safe. Bouchard filed a petition for reconsideration, and Luttrell declined. After Bouchard failed to act by the end of February, the Coast Guard took control of the vessels and had both barges towed to Yellow Fin Marine in Houma, La., on Feb. 29, for cleaning, with payment to come from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The tugs’ draft was too deep to be docked there, Edwards said, so a lightering operation was underway as of March 3. Bouchard crews were still aboard. Once complete, the tugs will also be brought to Yellow Fin. What will happen after that is unknown. “Best case would be for Bouchard to take action, but if that doesn’t occur, the federal government will have a say in what happens,” Edwards said.
- Port Arthur, Texas: As of March 3, tugs Danielle M. Bouchard with barge No 245 and Kim M. Bouchard with barge B. No. 270 had been at anchor five miles off Sabine Pass near Port Arthur, Texas, since mid-December, with crews aboard that had not been paid since at least Jan. 1. Combined, the ATBs are carrying nearly 200,000 gals. of oil, gas and other pollutants, according to a Coast Guard press release. On Feb. 10, Capt. Jacqueline Twomey, captain of the Port of Port Arthur and commander of the Marine Safety Unit Port Arthur, issued a captain of the port order requiring that the vessels be manned by minimum crew and remain in daily communication with the Coast Guard. The notice said failure to comply would result in both civil penalties and Class D felony charges, punishable by up to six years in prison and fines up to $250,000 per individual or $500,000 for an organization. A Feb. 27 order required that repairs be made to the Danielle M Bouchard and its barge, or that it be moved to a dock. Bouchard had not complied as of March 3. According to PAO Edwards, Capt. Twomey’s order assured the crews that the Coast Guard’s top priority was their safety and well-being. She also told them that penalties and fines would be directed at Bouchard, and not at them. “The captain of the port order,” Edwards said, “is not designed to hold the vessel masters and crews responsible for the situation Bouchard Transportation has put them in. If the crews leave the boats we will not pursue their licenses or penalties against them.” But an unmanned vessel, he added, would be a threat to the environment and the waterway. “The goal is for Bouchard to take care of these vessels and move them to safe berthing with at least minimum crew,” he said. “The problem is that if Bouchard has no money and is unable or unwilling to pay for berthing, the Coast Guard needs to take charge.”
- Corpus Christi, Texas: The tug Barbara E. Bouchard and barge B. No. 240, another ATB with no work and a crew that has been unpaid since Jan. 1, is now docked at the Martin Energy Services dock on Harbor Island in Aransas Pass, Texas. Since Bouchard owes the fuel company money, Martin Energy has a lien on the vessel. It cannot be moved, and the crew, per order of the Coast Guard, must remain on board for safety reasons.
Bouchard’s recent troubles date back more than two years. That’s when the B. No. 255, a 488’ oceangoing tank barge, and the 127’x37’x20’ 6,140-hp tug Buster Bouchard, were getting underway from Port Aransas on Oct. 20, 2017, with a cargo of crude oil. The barge blew up and burned, killing two crewmembers.
In an NTSB hearing following the explosion former Bouchard employees described safety lapses in company operations. Investigations by the Coast Guard and NTSB revealed that corrosion had allowed fumes to leak and explode. Inspections showed deficiencies and corrosion in other barges as well, according to a May 2019 NTSB report. The negative findings may have contributed to a drop in business for Bouchard, which may have led to its current financial situation.
Bouchard operates a fleet of 25 double-hulled barges and 26 tugs, according to its website.