PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The U.S. Coast Guard has yet to finish an investigation into why a 55-foot tugboat sank at the Memorial Bridge construction site, though some new information could be released soon.
Two crew members escaped injury on Oct. 24 when the Benjamin Bailey became pinned against a barge and capsized.
The 1,200-horsepower tugboat is owned by Riverside and Pickering Marine Contractors in Eliot, Maine, a subcontractor hired to work at the bridge.
The boat was being operated under contract with Archer Western Contractors, the company running the $81.4 million project, which is being funded by New Hampshire and Maine.
Ken Anderson, one of the co-owners of Riverside, said his company is preparing to release information about the incident soon — possibly early next week.
“We are actually in the process of getting ready to release a press release that will pretty much answer just about any question anybody could ask,” he said Friday. “We’re just waiting for the final approvals to come through here on it, and hopefully we’ll be releasing it at the beginning of the week.”
Officials from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and the U.S. Coast Guard gathered at the accident site for several days as the owner endeavored to salvage the ship. It was finally transported back to Eliot, Maine, on Oct. 29. An environmental company was also hired to help contain any potential fuel leaks from the ship’s diesel tanks, periodically deploying booms in the water.
Anderson said the cause of the tugboat mishap has not been determined. At this point, there’s been “no discussion of any type of mechanical problem,” he said, but he declined to comment further.
“You gotta keep in mind, there’s a lot of moving parts to this investigation,” he said. “It wouldn’t be prudent for anybody to comment until there’s been a conclusion.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, which is conducting the accident investigation, is not likely to wrap up the procedure for a week or more. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Janna Ott, chief of the investigations division at Sector Northern New England in Portland, Maine, said officials are prohibited from commenting on any preliminary findings.
Coast Guard Lt. Nick Barrow said the investigation is being carried out by the Marine Safety Detachment in Portsmouth, but the findings of the so-called “marine casualty” investigation must also be reviewed higher up the chain of command before they can be released.
“The overall purpose is to prevent similar incidents from happening again in the future,” he said.
Carol Morris, a spokeswoman for Archer Western, said she had not received any new information about the investigation since the accident occurred. Morris said it was up to Riverside, the subcontractor, to deal with the ramifications.
“It’s not really our thing, and even if I had an idea, I wouldn’t really be able to talk about it,” she said.
Morris said the sinking of the tugboat had no effect on the services that Riverside was contracted to perform for the Memorial Bridge project, nor did it affect the cost of the services.
“Technically speaking, I suppose Archer Western is responsible for its subcontractors. … If one of them does something bad or doesn’t meet specs, then the buck stops, certainly, at Archer Western’s desk,” Morris said, “but that doesn’t mean that they are intimately involved with everything that happens with their subcontractors.”
N.H. Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton said NHDOT has not been involved with any kind of follow-up regarding the tugboat incident, and referred questions about the cause of the crash to the Coast Guard.
In response to a request from Foster’s, the state Department of Environmental Services provided three reports detailing their activities at the Portsmouth accident site over a period of six days.
The documents indicate that the Benjamin Bailey was stocked with an estimated 750 gallons of diesel fuel in four tanks when it sank. They indicate a light sheen from an unknown material was noticed after the initial incident. About two hours after the tugboat went underwater, DES discussed the possibility of off-loading the fuel underwater prior to raising the ship, but the effort was called off. It would have entailed a diver drilling holes into fuel compartments, sealing off the holes and pumping off the fuel by way of a vacuum truck.
“It was decided that this operation was too dangerous and the effectiveness was questionable given the conditions with the strong currents of the river,” states a DES incident report. The next day, divers were able to successfully plug the ship’s fuel vents to prevent fuel from escaping.
A “small volume of oil” was released during efforts to move the ship on Oct. 26, and another substance was also released the following day, as the ship was being towed closer to shore, according to the DES report.
“As the vessel broke the surface, a release of diesel fuel, of undetermined quantity, occurred. DES, USCG and Clean Harbors responded to the release by placing sorbent boom downstream of the tug and in the area of Prescott Park docks,” the report states. “Sorbents were used to recover oil that had collected in the vicinity of the Prescott Park docks. In addition sorbent boom was placed around the tugboat in an attempt to contain the oil in the vicinity of the vessel. Subsequently, oil spill containment boom was deployed in the vicinity of the vessel as well as the area near the Prescott Park docks. A vacuum truck was used to recover oil directly from the area within the sorbent boom at the vessel.”
Fuel was removed from the fuel tanks the following day, according to the report. Clean Harbors changed the booms around the vessel earlier that day, and also changed materials in the dock area at Prescott Park and added another containment boom there.
DES later surveyed the area and determined there were no pockets of oil that had accumulated in natural collections areas upstream or downstream of the sunken boat.
“Patchy sheen was noted in several areas both upstream and downstream of the vessel. Additionally, the area near the entrance to Little Harbor was surveyed and no oil was noted in that area,” the report states.
Distributed by MCT Information Services