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LI barge operator fined $375,000 in whistleblower case

Melville-based Bouchard's barge, Buster Bouchard/B. No. 255, was

Melville-based Bouchard's barge, Buster Bouchard/B. No. 255, was involved in a 2017 explosion off Port Aransas, Texas. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

A Long Island barge operator and three former and current executives have paid $375,000 to a seaman who was fired after he cooperated with investigators probing a fatal 2017 explosion.

The payment by Melville-based Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc. and Morton S. Bouchard III, Brendan Bouchard and Kevin Donohue came under an agreement with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The settlement Thursday comes as Bouchard, whose website describes it as the "nation's largest independently owned ocean-going petroleum barge company," goes through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

In February, Judge David R. Jones, who is hearing the case in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston, removed Morton S. Bouchard III as the company's chief executive and director.

The court installed Matthew Ray, managing partner of Chicago-based Portage Point Partners, as chief restructuring officer for the company.

Calls to Ray, Bouchard Transportation and members of the company's legal team were not returned.

The OSHA settlement stems from an October 2017 explosion aboard the barge Buster Bouchard that killed two crew members.

The explosion, which took place off Port Aransas, Texas, discharged about 2,000 barrels of crude oil and caused more than $5 million in damage.

The brother of one of the two seamen killed — who worked at the company but was not aboard the Buster Bouchard at the time of the blast — was dismissed after he cooperated with investigators and reported other safety concerns.

Investigators for OSHA ruled that the dismissal amounted to retaliation under the Seaman's Protection Act.

"Employers and vessel owners must know and respect that, under the Seaman’s Protection Act, seamen have the right to report safety concerns and cooperate with the U.S. Coast Guard and other safety investigators," OSHA Regional Administrator Richard Mendelson said in a statement.

Under its whistleblower policy, OSHA did not disclose the identity of the seaman.

In addition to the financial settlement, the company agreed to remove from its files any reference to the seaman's termination and provide prospective employers only his position and the dates of his service.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the Buster Bouchard explosion was likely caused by vapor released when crude oil leaked through a corroded bulkhead.

Bouchard, founded in 1918, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September.

In 2004, the company pleaded guilty to violations of the Clean Water Act and was fined $10 million for a 2003 oil spill that fouled 90 miles of coastline in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

In 2014, New York Power Authority accused a Bouchard tugboat and barge of damaging an underwater cable near Hempstead Harbor by dropping an anchor on it.

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