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Mississippi River Oil Spill Barge Ignored Warnings Moments Before Collision

Aug 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The pilot of the barge involved in last month's Mississippi River oil spill had received repeated warnings to get out of the way moments before it collided with another vessel.  According to radio transmissions released by the Coast Guard, no one on the tugboat the Mel Oliver bothered responding to the warnings.  

The Mel Oliver, pushing a barge loaded with more than 400,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, collided with the tanker Tintamara on July 23, causing the worst oil spill New Orleans has seen in a decade.  The Mississippi River, from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, was closed for several days, and while shipping has resumed, it is going at a much slower pace than usual.  

The barge, which has continued to leak oil since the spill, was finally secured over the weekend.  Securing the barge has allowed crews to begin removing remaining oil from the vessel. Once the oil is extracted, cranes will be brought in to break up the wreckage and the remains of the vessel will be hauled away on barges.

On Saturday, the Coast Guard released radio recordings that showed that both Coast Guard personnel and the pilot of the Tintamara tried to warn the Mel Oliver of the impending danger right before the accident occurred.   

"Mel Oliver, come in cap, you're crossing the bottom of a ship coming at you," a Coast Guard traffic controller says.

As the pilot of the Tintamara becomes increasingly distressed, he makes repeated calls to the captain of the Mel Oliver. "This ain't good, man," the pilot says. Then, at the moment of impact, he says, "We just took his tow. The barge is right in front of us and we're running it over."

Unfortunately, the captain of the tugboat was nowhere to be found.  According to results of the Coast Guard's preliminary investigation, the captain was "on land".  As reported earlier, no one on the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision with the Tintamara was properly licensed to pilot a tugboat.

There were no mechanical or electrical problems with the massive Tintamara, or questions about it's pilot's competency, said the Coast Guard. The tugboat is currently being inspected for mechanical or electrical problems.

According to the Coast Guard, the tugboat's captain and steersman apprentice, and the pilot of the tanker have been summoned to a hearing in New Orleans on Aug. 12.

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