After a Corpus Christi media outlet went public with a story about a foreign boat crew being held on a boat without pay over at Harbor Island, we started getting calls and messages asking if there was a backstory? As it usually does, there in fact does lie a backstory and it turns out that trouble has been growing recently for financially distressed Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc., one of the nation’s largest oceangoing tug and barge companies.

It turns out that Port captains in four U.S. Coast Guard sectors — New York, New Orleans, and Port Arthur and Corpus Christi, Texas — ended up issuing orders demanding that Bouchard take action to secure the safety of several tug-barge vessels that had been sitting idle in local anchorages for many weeks, with unpaid crews aboard.

Further investigation revealed that several Bouchard employees sued the company for unpaid wages. According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Feb. 11, the group and its attorneys seek class-action status for the suit. The mariners stated they had not been paid since Jan. 1, and that a payroll administrator had told them, “Bouchard would not be paying for the work the seamen on the fleet of Bouchard boats would be performing and had already performed in February 2020.”

Bouchard did not respond to our request for comments. However, the company did issue a statement on its website on Feb. 14: “The past two years Bouchard has confronted tests the likes of which it has not faced in 100 years of history. Today’s Sector NY/NJ Captain of the Port Order on just eight of our 51 units is a further financial hurdle. Financial struggles are trial enough, but they are worse when they affect or worry our employees. We are working with financial and technical advisers to address the challenges at every level of our business. . . . Please know that we are working every day with clients, creditors and the authorities to put our house aright. We have a financial plan and a clear understanding of and commitment to all those who work with, support or rely upon us.”

Here in Corpus Christi he tug Barbara E. Bouchard and barge No. 240, has a crew that has been unpaid since Jan. 1. That unit is now docked at the Martin Energy Service Dock on Harbor Island in Port Aransas. Since Bouchard owes the fuel company money, Martin Energy has a lien on the vessel. It cannot be moved, and the crew, per order of the Coast Guard, must remain on board for safety reasons.

In Port Arthur, trouble came in early February when some crewmembers aboard Danielle M. Bouchard and barge No 245 and the Kim M. Bouchard and barge B. No. 270, which had been anchored five miles off Sabine Pass near Port Arthur, Texas, since mid-December, threatened to abandon their posts because they said the vessels were unsafe because some crewmembers departed the vessels without replacement. There, the Captain of the Port told the crews that the vessels must be manned by minimum crew and remain in daily communication with the Coast Guard. The notice to them also said that failure to do so could result in both civil penalties and Class D felony charges which are punishable by up to six years in prison.

Folks around Corpus Christi may remember the day that the trouble started for Brouchard more than two years. That is when the oceangoing tank barge and its tug Buster Bouchard were getting underway from Port Aransas on Oct. 20, 2017 with a cargo of crude oil, the barge blew up and burned, killing two crewmembers.

In an NTSB hearing following the explosion former Bouchard employees described safety lapses in company operations. Investigations by the Coast Guard and NTSB revealed that corrosion had allowed fumes to leak and explode. Inspections showed deficiencies and corrosion in other barges as well, according to a May 2019 NTSB report.

The negative findings may have contributed to a drop in business for Bouchard, which may have led to its current financial situation.

Bouchard operates a fleet of 25 double-hulled barges and 26 tugs, according to its website.