One of the Coast Guard’s watchstanders on duty the day a collision in the Houston Ship Channel spilled more that 168,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay, said that he believed that the service used to monitor traffic within the traffic is adequately staffed.
Petty Officer Jeremy Estes said that one watchstander is responsible for monitoring eight screens displaying ship traffic in the sector of channel where the collision, between the tanker Summer Wind and oil barges towed by the tugboat Miss Susan, happened on March 22.
“At this time negative, due the large number of displays,” Estes said when asked if he felt the station was adequately manned.
Estes was one of the two controllers on duty when the collision happened. He and other members of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service unit were called to testify at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing into the causes behind the spill.
The Vessel Traffic Service acts “as a communications hub ... by providing accurate, relevant, and timely information to mariners, port authorities and facility operators”, according to the Coast Guard’s website.
Investigator’s questions on Wednesday paid special attention to the changes in shifts that occurred between traffic controllers in the minutes prior to the collision.
Estes began his monitoring the traffic in the channel at about 12:20 p.m., he told investigators, but minutes later, he switched duties with another controller, Michael Stevenson, who was scheduled to testify later this afternoon. Minutes after the switch, the collision occurred.
Estes testified that he did not ask to switch assignments, but admitted he was more comfortable monitoring a different section of the channel than the one he was originally assigned to.
“I prefer Sector 3,” Estes said. “I like the facilities, I have more cameras to use, I stay more engaged.”
Earlier in the morning, the controller who was on shift before Estes, David Anderson, said traffic in the channel the morning of the collision was light. He said he had noted the movements of the tug boat, the Miss Susan, and said that the Summer Wind had not notified him directly of its movements into the ship channel.
Anderson said that while controllers cannot order a ship to change speed or direction, they can “call up” a vessel to advise it on positioning conflicts.
Investigators stressed on Wednesday that their goal in interviewing members of the traffic service was identify potential ways to prevent future collisions.
“The ultimate goal here is to make safety recommendation to be able to keep this from happening again,” said lead Coast Guard investigator Teresa Hatfield.