By Kim Smiley
On March 9, 2015, two large ships collided in the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the United States. There were no major injuries reported, but the accident resulted in the release of methyl tertiary-butyl ether, commonly called MTBE, a chemical that is used as a fuel additive. The clean-up and investigation of the collision closed the channel from the afternoon of March 9 until the morning of March 12.
At the time of the collision, the tanker Carla Maersk was traveling outbound in the channel transporting MTBE. The bulk carrier Conti Perido was heading inbound with a load of steel. Both ships were significantly damaged by the collision and three cargo tanks ruptured on the Carla Maersk, spilling the MTBE. Limited information has been released about what caused the accident, but a National Transportation Safety Board investigation is underway. Initial reports are that both vessels were traveling at about 9 knots, which is typical for this stretch so excessive speed does not appear to be a cause. It has also been reported that it was foggy at the time of the accident which may have played a role in the accident.
An initial Cause Map can be built using the information that is available. The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to fill in an Outline with the basic background information along with the impacts to the goals. Like many incidents, this collision impacted several different goals. The safety goal was impacted because MTBE is toxic and has the potential to cause injuries. The environmental goal was clearly impacted by the release of MTBE. The multiple-day closure of the Houston Ship Channel is an impact to the production/schedule goal and the impact to local businesses resulting from closure is an impact to the economic goal. The damage to the ships is an impact to the equipment goal.
On the outline, there is also a line to record the frequency of how often a similar event has occurred. It’s important to consider the frequency because a small problem that occurs often may very well warrant a more detailed investigation than a small problem that has only been seen once. In this example, there have been previous ship collisions. This accident was the second ship collision to occur in the channel in a week. Two large ships bumped on March 5, 2015, which did not result in any injuries or pollution.
Release of MTBE is a significant concern, but the impacts of this ship collision could easily have been worse. MTBE is volatile and flammable so there could have been a fire or the ships could have been carrying something more dangerous. It may be difficult to get the data, but it would be interesting to know how many near misses have occurred between ships traveling in the channel. The frequency that accidents are occurring needs to be considered along with the details of any individual incident when conducting an investigation. Two collisions in a week is a pretty clear indication that there is potential for more to occur in the future if nothing is changed.