Judge orders marshals to seize ship involved in oil spill

This is a photo of the cargo ship Summer Wind as it was anchored near the Houston Ship Channel two weeks ago. A federal judge ordered the ship to be seized as part of a federal lawsuit into its part in a collision near the Texas City Dike that spilled more than 168,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into Galveston Bay on March 22.

HOUSTON — A federal judge on Friday ordered the seizure of the cargo ship that was involved in a collision with a barge that caused an oil spill in Galveston Bay.

U.S. marshals were set to seize the Summer Wind, which is docked at the Port of Houston.

On March 22, the Summer Wind was en route to the Port of Houston when it collided with a barge owned by Kirby Inland Marine.

The barge was being towed by the tugboat Miss Susan and was headed from the Port of Texas City to the Intracoastal Waterway along the Bolivar Peninsula.

The vessels collided near the tip of the Texas City Dike, in an area known as the Texas City Y. That is where the Houston and Texas City ship channels and Intracoastal Waterway intersect.

The collision resulted in the spill of more than 168,000 gallons — or 4,000 barrels — of heavy fuel oil into the bay.

The oil found its way into Gulf of Mexico and washed up on beaches from Galveston to Matagorda County.

Judge John Froeschner issued the warrant of seizure — also known as the arrest of the vessel — at the request of attorney Sean O’Rourke.

O’Rourke represents fishermen and bait shop owners who are suing over the spill, which closed shipping lanes for several days.

“Because the ship doesn’t have an agent in the (Houston-Galveston region) this is a necessary move to protect the ship’s assets,” O’Rourke said.

The barge is at a shipyard in Houston undergoing repairs. The Daily News was unable to confirm the status of the Miss Susan.

O’Rourke and his partner Nick Simon were the first to jump into the legal fray over the spill, filing a federal lawsuit within days of the collision.

The judge’s order allows the Summer Wind to continue cargo handling and it can move to another berth at the Port of Houston or Port of Galveston. But the ship isn’t to leave the area until it is released from seizure.

A Coast Guard investigation has yet to determine who was at fault in the collision. Still, a post-collision inspection of the Summer Wind, operated by Greek shipping company Cleopatra Shipping Agency, found that the vessel had issues with its navigation equipment.

Under federal laws, Kirby is designated as the responsible party, since the spilled oil came from its barge. The accident investigation is led by the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Texas City and assisted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Audio recordings of radio traffic between the Summer Wind and Miss Susan, first obtained by the Houston Chronicle, indicate that the Houston Pilot who was guiding the larger ship through heavy fog to the Port of Houston warned the tugboat of a possible collision. Soon after, the two vessels collided.

Also on Friday, an attorney representing a shrimp boat captain claims that shrimp caught in the area near the spill have come up “oiled.”

Attorney Brett Coon said that the unnamed shrimper “discovered a significant amount of oil on the captured shrimp. A closer inspection revealed that his entire catch was covered with oil.”

While the Galveston County Health District issued a caution about eating fish caught in the immediate area of the spill, federal and state officials have said fish and shrimp caught in the bay and Gulf is safe to eat.

Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds may be reached at 409-683-5334 or tjaulds@galvnews.com.

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