The annual Coast Guard towing safety statistics report is a dry, numeric tally of everyday dangers in the industry: Crew overboard, lines parting and snapping like snakes, workers caught by remorselessly moving steel.

But there was some better news – if you can call it that – to be taken from the 2014 report that was brought to the Coast Guard-American Waterways Operators National Quality Steering Committee a couple of weeks ago.

Crew fatality rates have been falling over the past decade, down to four in 2014 from the last peak of 18 deaths on the job in 2005.

That’s good news in that most types of accidents have been reduced – but falls overboard still account for most of the fatalities.

The other striking trend line in the report is the rate and volume of oil spilled in connection with tanker barge incidents. Calculated as gallons of oil spilled per million gallons transported by barge, those numbers took a steep dive in the late 1990s as operators began compliance with the requirements of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

That law came after the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker grounding and spill in Alaska. In just a few years – the first decade of a 25-year conversion to double hull tank barges – that ratio of oil spilled to oil transported went from more than 16 gals. per million down to between 2 gals. and 3 gals.

In 2005, DBL-152 spilled nearly 2 million gals. of slurry oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NOAAIt would have fallen even farther in 2005, but for the DBL-152 tank barge accident in the Gulf of Mexico. A delayed casualty of the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season, the tanker barge ran into the wreck of an oil platform destroyed by Hurricane Rita, releasing nearly 2 million gals. of slurry oil.

For a couple of years following, the loss rate hit 4 gals. per million before virtually flat-lining for years. For operators and their customers, the Coast Guard and federal agencies, OPA ’90 double hull rules were proving their worth. Especially in March 2009, when the double hull tanker SKS Satilla ran across another missing rig, that one downed by Hurricane Ike.

But the double hull held, and with it, the cargo of 41 million gals. of oil.

Accidents still happen. Looking at the 2014 numbers, the Coast Guard calculates the per-million-gallons spill rate at 2.68 gals.; that works out to around 200,000 gals. in total spilled. Coast Guard officials say that’s not bad, in light of the fact that tank barge oil volume had increased by 7.6% from 2012.

Most of that loss came from a single high-profile case: A March 2014 collision in the Houston Ship Channel involving a bulk carrier and barge tow that released 168,000 gals. A real mess, and one that got everyone from the captains to the Coast Guard a scolding from the National Transportation Safety Board. But no Exxon Valdez.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.