On October 13, 2016, an American vessel owned by Kirby Offshore Marine of Houston ran aground near Bella Bella, British Columbia, resulting in over 100,000 liters of spilled oil, lubricants, and fuel. The accident was considered a major environmental disaster, closing fisheries and threatening the livelihood of nearby indigenous, First Nation people. Now, the second mate of that ship has admitted to causing the accident by falling asleep on the job. Other safety issues may have played a role in the accident as well, according to reports.
The Accident and Spill
The vessel in the incident, the Nathan E. Stewart, is a U.S.-flagged tug and barge. On October 13 it was traveling to the Port of Vancouver. The boat ran aground in a channel not far off the British Columbia coast and about 300 miles north of Vancouver. While no one was seriously hurt in the incident, the boat eventually sank about 30 feet.
The grounding also caused a major spill of fuel and other liquids from the boat, severely impacting the local environment. More than 100,000 liters of diesel fuel leaked from the vessel, as well as over 2,000 liters of other fluids, including lubricants, hydraulic oil, and dirty bilge, a mix of water, oil, sludge, and other contaminants. The ship suffered $12 million in damage.
Second Mate Fell Asleep on Watch
The report on the accident didn’t come out until nearly a year later, but in it the investigators detailed the events leading up to the incident. The boat had an electronic chart system that included an alarm that is supposed to sound if the vessel goes off course. The investigation found that this system was not in use on the night of the maritime accident, and that it often wasn’t.
The second mate had relieved the captain on watch duty and missed a course change at nearly 1:00 am. Another crew member tried to radio the mate at about that time but got no response. After a few attempts he went to the wheelhouse, but it was too late. The ship ran aground in a rocky area of the Seaforth Channel. It was only much later that the second mate admitted he had been asleep when he missed the course change and while the other crew member tried to contact him over the radio.
The investigators concluded that this human error was the main cause of the accident and resulting fuel spill. However, there were other issues as well. The investigation found that the crew had not been following established safety procedures. There was supposed to be a second crew member in the wheelhouse with the second mate. Not having the electronic course alarm activated was also blamed for the incident. The alarm would have given the second mate time to make a course correction.
This accident was caused by crew error and a failure to follow safety protocols. The results of the incident were not fatal, but did cause a big environmental issue that will have repercussions for residents for many years to come.