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After Mississippi River Oil Spill, Coast Guard Promises New Tugboat Rule

Sep 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP In the wake of this summer's Mississippi River oil spill, lawmakers are pressing the Coast Guard to finally implement long-delayed rules to regulate tugboats. At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, members asked the Coast Guard why the rules - proposed four years ago - were not yet implemented.  One lawmaker received a promise from a Coast Guard representative that the new rules would be on the books by the next shipping season.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the tanker  Tintomara and a barge -carrying 419,000 gallons of oil - being towed by the tugboat Mel Oliver collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi. The busy river channel was closed for six days to allow for cleanup of the spill.

The barge and tugboat involved in the accident were owned by American Commercial Lines.   The tugboat was being staffed by a crew provided by DRD Towing.  The pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat. That individual had an apprentice mates license, which only allowed him to operate the tugboat under the supervision of a licensed master, who was not onboard the Mel Oliver at time of the accident.

Since the Mississippi River oil spill occurred, questions have been raised about DRD’s safety record.  It turns out the that pilot of another DRD tugboat, the Ruby E., also had only an apprentice mates license when that vessel sank on July 13, only a few miles from the spill.  It is also known that DRD had failed a safety audit in May, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Association, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

"It is unfathomable to me that within two weeks, the same company would be involved in two marine casualties while illegally operating towing vessels," Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md, said at Tuesday's hearing.

Four years ago, Congress ordered the Coast Guard to create rules requiring the regular inspection of towing vessels and limits on the number of hours that crew members work each day. None of rules have been issued.  Some believe the proposed regulation might have prevented the Mississippi River oil spill.

Thomas Allegretti, president and CEO of the American  Waterways Association, told the hearing  that with the proposed Coast Guard regulations in place, information that DRD had failed the May safety audit may have been disseminated in a way, and with some consequences, that might have made a difference. As it stands now, the association depends on operators to comply with its rules voluntarily.  "It's too easy to look the other way because there are not consequences for ignoring them."  Allegretti said.

Rear Adm. James Watson IV, the Coast Guard's Director of Prevention Policy for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship, said that the new rules would be implemented sometime in 2009.  However, Rep James Oberstar, D-Minn., Chairman of the House Transportation Committee pushed for a more specific timeline.  Watson said that that the rules would be in place by spring.

But it appears the Congressman may have extracted a promise from the Rear Admiral to have the new rules in place even sooner.  "Spring is a long time," Oberstar  said. "How about before the shipping season?"

In response to that query, Watson replied "Yes, Sir."

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