Trouble has snowballed in recent weeks for financially distressed Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc., one of the nation’s largest oceangoing tug and barge companies.
Port captains in four U.S. Coast Guard sectors — New York, New Orleans, and Port Arthur and Corpus Christi, Texas — have issued orders demanding that Melville, N.Y.-based Bouchard take action to secure the safety of several articulated tug-barge 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.”
Bouchard did not respond to WorkBoat’s request for comments 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 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 and the barge B. 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. Crews are required to remain aboard, and the Coast Guard is monitoring them as well as three other Bouchard ATBs still anchored in the harbor. “The Coast Guard is well aware that Bouchard is having internal labor issues,” Daniel L. Henry, public affairs officer for USCG Sector NY, said, noting that the Coast Guard has received complaints about low fuel levels and lack of pay from mariners on some boats. As a result, the Coast Guard has been doing daily “wellness checks” to talk with crews and assess conditions. “If you have a situation where people may be wanting to abandon boats or the potential for boats not to be properly manned, regardless of the issue, the Coast Guard is going to step in. The bottom line is we have to protect the seaways and the port.”
- 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 and Bouchard Girls and associated barges — 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 say that the Coast Guard will take the vessels and federalize them to clean any potential pollution out of the barges and make them safe. “The notice did spark some conversation between Bouchard and the Captain of the Port,” Edwards said. Bouchard filed a petition for reconsideration, and Luttrell declined, but discussions are ongoing. Bouchard Girls was moved to Associated Terminals in Chalmette, La., a few days later. As of Feb. 19, Donna J. Bouchard was still at the nine-mile anchorage, and the NOFA was still in force for both vessels. Crews were still aboard.
- Port Arthur, Texas: In early February some crewmembers aboard Danielle M. Bouchard and barge No 245 and the Kim M. Bouchard and barge B. No. 270, which had been anchored five miles off Sabine Pass near Port Arthur, Texas, since mid-December, threatened to abandon their posts because they said the vessels were unsafe because some crewmembers departed the vessels without replacement. In response, Capt. Jacqueline Twomey, Captain of the Port of Port Arthur and Commander of the Marine Safety Unit Port Arthur, issued Captain of the Port Orders on Feb. 9 and 10 requiring that the vessels be manned by minimum crew and remain in daily communication with the Coast Guard. The notice said that failure to do so could result in both civil penalties and Class D felony charges which are punishable by up to six years in prison and fines up to $250,000 per individual or $500,000 for an organization. “The goal is for Bouchard to take care of these vessels, and move them to safe berthing with at least minimum crew,” Public affairs Officer Edwards said, noting that the Coast Guard wants to hold the owners, not the vessel masters responsible. “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.” The Coast Guard is in discussions with Bouchard, and as of Feb. 19, the vessels were still at anchor with crews, which had not been paid since Jan. 1, remaining aboard. “Everything is in a holding pattern,” one Coast Guard official said.
- Corpus Christi, Texas: The tug Barbara E. Bouchard and barge No. 240, another ATB with no work and a crew that has been unpaid since Jan. 1, is now docked at the Martin Energy Service Dock on Harbor Island in Aransas. 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 troubles date back more than two years. When the B. No. 255, a 488’ oceangoing tank barge, and the 127’x 37’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.