AUSTIN, Texas -- The barge operator that spilled nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the Houston Ship Channel, closing one of the nation's busiest seaports for several days, will be fined by Texas regulators regardless of the outcome of state and federal investigations.
Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the cause of last weekend's accident involving a barge owned by Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine Corp., but Texas law considers the company carrying the oil a responsible party, said Greg Pollock, deputy director for the Texas General Land Office's oil spill response division.
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"What that will be now I can't say because we don't have a closed case," Pollock said.
It won't be the first fine for the company, which has paid more than $51,000 for at least 77 spills since 2008, most of which were minor incidents.
Saturday's accident closed the main artery linking the area's busy ports with the largest petrochemical complex in the country. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, typically handles about 70 ships and 300 to 400 tugboats and barges a day, and sees more than 200 million tons of cargo move through each year.
The channel wasn't fully reopened until late Thursday. At its height, the closure stranded some 100 vessels.
"As long as the weather holds up, we can get caught up in a couple days," said Capt. Clint Winegar of the Houston Pilots, an association of sea pilots.
The Coast Guard is investigating the accident with an assist from the National Transportation Safety Board, said Commander Gary Messmer, the Coast Guard's chief of prevention for the Houston-Galveston sector. He noted that investigators were reviewing communications recordings between ships and doing interviews.
But what is known is that two barges and a towboat were leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway, which is designed exclusively for barges, while an inbound ship was traveling through the Houston Ship Channel. The collision occurred when the barges made a left turn to enter the Intracoastal Waterway and were crossing the ship channel.
It is unclear whether the barge hit the ship or the other way around, Messmer said.
The Coast Guard has given no timeline on when its investigation might be finished, and NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said he didn't know how long his agents would be on the scene.
Experts say not to expect a conclusion soon.
"Sometimes it can take years. Sometimes they can do it a lot quicker," said Jim Crawford, a retired Coast Guard officer now with Ohio-based Introtech, which reconstructs accidents. "It just depends on the workload and the amount of personnel that they have, and the complications they face."
Investigators will likely look at the role fog may have played and try to determine the speed of the vessels, said Crawford, who served 29 years in the Coast Guard.
"You make a determination of whether that speed was safe and reasonable for those conditions. And obviously it wasn't because these two vessels collided and oil got spilled," he said.
A critical report from the U.S. Office of Inspector General said in May 2013 that the Coast Guard didn't have adequate processes to investigate marine accidents or take corrective actions. The report said a lack of dedicated Coast Guard resources, including "adequate training" in reporting accidents, had resulted in a backlog of more than 6,000 investigations.
So far, there are no cost estimates for cleaning up the oil spill, but Kirby has said it will cover the bill.
Kirby has reported dozens of incidents that were investigated by the Coast Guard in recent years, including at least 20 involving the Miss Susan, the tow boat involved in Saturday's accident. A database of Coast Guard incidents shows that some are minor, such as equipment failure, though the records don't reflect any fines or penalties.
The largest fine that Texas imposed on Kirby in the past six years came in 2012, when the company had to pay $20,350 for a spill that dumped 8,400 gallons of oil in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, according to state land office records. But Pollock praised Kirby as a responsible and well-run company despite the fines.