Offshore InjuryBlog

Formal Investigations Rarely Occur for Port of Houston Accidents

Individuals Responsible For Accidents Are Seldom Disciplined

An investigation held by the Houston Chronicle shows that hardly any pilots involved in Port of Houston accidents are disciplined for their mistakes. An example of this would be Mike Pizzitola and the numerous accidents he has caused while piloting ships in and out of the Port of Houston. On March 22 of this year, when other harbor pilots had agreed to suspend all ship movements into the Port of Houston due to fog, Pizzitola, an experienced pilot, directed the Summer Wind's captain to proceed through the port at full power. The ship only made it to Galveston Bay, where it collided with a barge carrying a million gallons of heavy fuel. As a result, 168,000 gallons of oil spilled into the bay, covering birds and fouling beaches as far away as Padre Island.

Pizzitola has also been involved in two other Ship Channel accidents and was accused by federal judges for going too fast in those incidents. In 2001, he caused a collision and oil spill. His March accident is still under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation and Safety Board, and the Port of Houston Authority commissioners, who are also locally appointed and double as the Board of Pilot Commissioners. The Board of Pilot Commissioners is a disciplinary board who oversees the Houston Pilots under a 1923 state law.

After the 2001 accident, Pizzitola was issued a "letter of caution," which is a rare, but mild, form of discipline allotted by the pilot board. Ever since this accident caused by Pizzitola, a "letter of caution" was as tough as the pilot board has ever been on a pilot who was involved in an accident—even if they had been found responsible for other accidents in the past via the NTSB.

What is the pilot board?

The pilot board is a group of regulators who delegate all its statutory oversight to two, secretive investigatory committees whose members include active pilots and various other maritime interests. They decide upon disciplinary actions behind closed doors. Information gathered from the port authority through open request records and successive interviews with port authority officials shows accidents are seldom formally investigated as a public hearing and that pilots involved or at fault for accidents are hardly ever disciplined.

Since 2008, only a quarter of 52 accidents reported have been formally investigated via public hearings and only one of said case led to a pilot receiving a "letter of caution." For other cases, the pilot board either required additional training, which is the mildest form of punishment available, or made loose suggestions for protocols pilots should follow in the future. Proof could not be found regarding if said suggestions were ever enforced.

Only one pilot's license has been revoked since 1998, but that was due to a failed drug test—not an accident. The pilot board relies upon a nine-member panel, or the Pilot Board Investigation Recommendation Committee, to discipline pilots. This panel consists of three pilots and six representatives of maritime-related businesses and the committee deliberates and votes in private. All members are selected by Janiece Longoria, who is the chairman of the port authority commission, and Marcus Woodring, who is a senior port security official who oversees the investigation committee.

The committee can decide if accidents need a public hearing to the Pilot Board Investigation Recommendation Committee Advisory Subcommittee, which also votes and discusses matters in private. If a public hearing is found necessary, the full investigation committee usually only hears from the involved pilots and their lawyers. They do not have the power to subpoena witnesses. According to the port's general counsel, he believes the committee, nor subcommittee, is subject to Texas' open meeting laws.

A Pilot's Job

All ships that partake in foreign trade via the 58-mile Ship Channel between Galveston Bay and the Turning Basin Terminal are required to hire a pilot to help guide them throughout the narrow, winding, man-made waterway used to connect the Houston port to the Gulf of Mexico. This area is known as the most landlocked region in the United States. It is reported that the group of 97 highly experienced and trained pilots each earn about $500,000 a year.

However, in a report ordered by the Texas Sunset Advisory after a series of port authority scandals, it was discovered that port commissioners acting as the pilot board did not actively ensure pilots were operating ships safely and correctly. The port commissioners, instead, seemed to be taking a hands-off approach. Since this review, the pilot board has ramped up its duties and public transparency. Woodring has also started to present all committee reviews of marine deaths and rules violations involving pilots to the pilot board—even when they choose not to take any action.

Elected Officials Know Little about Pilots and Their Liabilities

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who is the Sunset Commission member who penned the bill that placed the port authority under review, said than many elected officials, including him, know little about the pilot oversight process. He was unaware of a 1987 state law that limits a pilot's liability in accidents to $1,000. This cap means pilots are rarely sued, even if they caused accidents. Instead, ship owners and captains are legally responsible for all mistakes made by pilots.

This also means that the pilot board is solely responsible for holding negligent pilots responsible for their actions. According to former port commissioner Michael Solar, who is a trial attorney and civil rights activist, the oversight of pilots has improved since the 1990's, when he served on the board. During this time, many commissioners were unaware of their duties to regulate pilots, did not have a complete list of specialized mariners, and enforced very few licensing requirements. Solar pressed for better oversight and encouraged pilots to diversify their nearly all-white male membership. He was disappointed to learn that commissioners still seem to delegate a majority of their accident review responsibilities to other parties.

Houston Pilots are known for their abilities to steer the complex channel known as "the Texas chicken." Collectively, pilots make around 18,000 trips in and out of the Ship Channel every year, while port officials review an average of only about eight accidents annually. Even though major crashes are few and far between, the chances of a ship accident in the channel are incredibly high. Recent accidents involving pilots have included two-ship collisions and mooring accidents that caused millions of dollars in damages to ships and public docks, fuel and toxic chemical spills, and the interruption of port commerce.

Disagreements Amongst the NTSB and the Pilot Board

Thomas Marian, a member of the investigation committee and general counsel for Houston barge company Buffalo Marine Service, stated that debates held by the committee are often complex and heated. In one of the most recent, high-profile accidents involving a pilot, the pilot board disagreed with a 2013 NTSB report that stated the pilot aboard a tanker was at fault for the accident. In their report, the NTSB said the pilot made a series of steering mistakes that ultimately caused the collision between a ship and a containership near the Bayport flare. The accident, which occurred in October, 2011, caused more than $2 million in damages to both ships.

The pilot board held its own hearing and reviewed evidence collected by the Coast Guard and NTSB, as well as heard testimony from the pilots and an expert witness hired by pilots. The expert offered an independent accident reconstruction that was different from the NTSB's and blamed the captain of a towing vessel who passed the tanker before the collision occurred. The pilot board then voted to close the case without disciplining either pilot. Instead, they supported the pilot's own plan to recreate the accident at a special training facility in the French Alps. According to the pilot and his lawyer, the pilot completed the training and the results confirmed the expert's discovery.

Many of the pilots that were interviewed, as well as committee members and port officials, scorned the NTSB's recommendations and conclusions for various maritime cases and believed the agency as better equipped to investigate aviation accidents. As of currently, it is unclear when the Coast Guard and the NTSB will complete their investigations of Pizzitola. Four years after the accident that caused him to receive the "letter of caution," Pizzitola was involved in an accident that involved running aground an oil tanker. Port officials, however, could not find if the accident was ever investigated.

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