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Mississippi River Oil Spill Barge Owner Denies Responsibility

Jul 30, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

American Commercial Lines, owner of the barge that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Mississippi River last Wednesday, is denying responsibility for the accident that caused the oil spill.  While it plans to seek protection from oil spill lawsuits that name it as a defendant, the company said it would pay for cleanup of the oil spill

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred when a 600-foot tanker and a barge loaded with fuel collided. The spill occurred about 1:30 a.m. central time last Wednesday near the Crescent City Connection, a pair of New Orleans bridges. The barge split in half, spilling more than 419,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the river. At the time, the American Commercial Lines barge was being towed by the tugboat Mel Oliver, owned and operated by DRD Towing of Harvey, Louisiana.

Since the accident, questions have been raised about DRD's safety record.   According to he U.S. Coast Guard, the pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat.  The pilot had only an apprentice mates license.  It also 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 18, only a few miles from last weeks spill.

Yesterday, it was learned that DRD had failed a safety audit in May, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Organization, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

Yesterday at a news conference, Paul Book, vice president of operations facilities for American Commercial Lines Inc. affirmed that his company would take responsibility for the cost of the oil spill cleanup.  However, Book said American Commercial Lines was not responsible for the incident that caused the spill.  "We were not the operator of the towing vessel nor the operator of the ship," Brook said.

Coast Guard Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the port captain in New Orleans, who also attended the news conference, would not comment on who was to blame for the collision that led up to the spill.  "American Commercial Line has stepped forward as being responsible for the spill cleanup, not responsible for the incident," Stroh said. "The investigation will clearly establish fault at a later date, but that's not a place to go right now."

Separately, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, American Commercial Lines denied blame for the accident because the barge was controlled entirely by the Mel Oliver.  In the filing, American Commercial Lines also confirmed it had been named in three class action lawsuits related to the oil spill.  The company says it is seeking exoneration from the lawsuits, or limited liability.


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