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Poor maintenance and safety management led to fatal 2017 Texas barge explosion

13 May 2019

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined that the deadly explosion and fire aboard a barge off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas in 2017 was the result of a lack of effective maintenance and safety management by its owner, the Bouchard Transportation Company.

This NTSB image shows cracks and corrosion on a barge bulkhead
This NTSB image shows cracks and corrosion on a barge bulkhead

In addition, the NTSB said, ineffective inspections and surveys by both the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping and failure to correct unsafe conditions also contributed to the accident.

The NTSB’s findings were released on May 9. The brief states that the October 20, 2017 explosion aboard the articulated tug and barge Buster Bouchard/B No. 255 was caused by the ignition of flammable vapour that formed in a void space. The vapour was from crude oil that leaked into the void space from the number one port cargo tank through a corroded bulkhead.

Two barge crewmembers who were on the bow were killed in the explosion.

About 2,000 barrels of crude oil were discharged from the barge into the water, or, were consumed in the ensuing fire. The barge sustained more than $5 million in damage and was scrapped after the accident. The tugboat was not damaged.

 “The series of failures documented during this investigation highlights the need for effective safety management systems, proper vessel maintenance, and thorough regulatory examinations,” said NTSB Director of Marine Safety Brian Curtis.  “If implemented, the recommendations issued as a result of this investigation will help to identify the failures that led to this accident and prevent similar casualties in the future.”

NTSB investigators documented cracks in the area of the original bulkhead that were not repaired prior to the explosion. These cracks compromised the integrity of the cargo containment of the number one port tank.  The NTSB’s report noted US Coast Guard inspectors who examined the barge prior to the accident failed to identify unsafe conditions, which allowed the vessel to continue to operate at an increased risk to the crews, the environment and port facilities. Further, the American Bureau of Shipping failed to act on its surveys that also highlighted discrepancies regarding the substandard maintenance and hazardous conditions of B. No. 255.

The NTSB also found no indication of collaborative communications between ABS and Coast Guard regarding deficiencies discovered by either organisation prior to the explosion. The lack of communication between ABS and the Coast Guard prevented a coordinated effort to evaluate the structural condition of the tank barge.

The NTSB concluded in its report that the ineffective inspections and surveys by both the Coast Guard and the ABS and failure to correct unsafe conditions contributed to the accident.  Based upon the findings of its investigation, the NTSB issued safety recommendations to both organisations seeking the establishment of joint policy and procedures to share information including results and findings from audits, surveys, examinations, inspections and all other applicable activities related to vessel safety.

The NTSB also issued one safety recommendation to Bouchard Transportation Co., Inc., to evaluate their safety management system with a third party to identify deficiencies.

To view findings, probable cause, and all recommendations, visit

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