The barge and towing company responsible for a 2014 oil spill that released 168,000 gallons of oil into the Houston Ship Channel has agreed to pay $4.9 million in civil penalties, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Kirby Inland Marine also agreed to make “fleet-wide operational improvements” as part of its deal with the justice department.

On March 22, 2014, a barge being towed by a Kirby-owned tug boat, the Miss Susan, collided with a bulk cargo ship, the Summer Wind, in the ship channel.

Conditions were foggy that day, however the justice department said the tow boat had detected the presence of the 585-foot cargo ship and tried to cross in front of it anyway.

The ship collided with the lead oil barge, which was carrying heavy marine fuel oil. The oil flowed into the ship channel, out into the Gulf of Mexico and south down the coast as far as the Padre Island National Seashore.

“This settlement sends a clear message that vessel owners and operators have a responsibility to protect our waters, people and the environment from oil spills and those who violate that duty will be held accountable under the law,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, from the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“The remedial measures in this agreement will upgrade navigational equipment, provide employee training, and improve operational practices across an entire fleet of vessels.”

The settlement requires Kirby to improve operations across its entire fleet, which includes hundreds of vessels. The company must install enhanced navigational equipment, provide employee training on that equipment and on navigation skills.

The new training will include a “simulator-based exercise” that mimics the Texas City Y scenario.

The $4.9 million penalty is derived from the Clean Water Act, a federal law created in 1972 to govern water pollution. The government will put the money in a liability trust fund, which will be used to pay for future oil spill cleanups.

The penalty will be paid in addition to the cleanup costs already paid by Kirby and the compensation it already paid to victims of the spill.

In March, the Galveston Park Board of Trustees accepted a $400,000 settlement in its lawsuit related to the spill. The park board claimed the spill caused a loss because of the forced closures of East Beach and Seawolf Park.

The city of Galveston did not sue over the damages caused by the spill.

The government is still assessing the damage the spill caused to marine and natural resources. The penalties from that damage will be addressed separately.

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com. Follow him on Twitter, @johnwferguson.

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