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Mississippi River Oil Spill Barge Pilot Not Properly Licensed

Jul 24, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

An oil spill on the Mississippi River that released thousands of gallons of heavy oil near New Orleans has shut down the river to traffic, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the US Coast Guard, the tug boat that was pushing a barge involved in the spill lacked a properly licensed pilot.

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  near the Crescent City Connection, a pair of New Orleans bridges.  A smell which many people thought was diesel was noticeable in the French Quarter and parts of New Orleans' central business district.  The barge split in half, spilling more than 419,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the river.  Officials in New Orleans said that the barge spilled nearly all of the fuel oil it was carrying. The barge's owner, American Commercial Lines, immediately took responsibility for the oil spill.

According to "The Times-Picayune", The Coast Guard has closed the river from mile marker 97 in New Orleans to Southwest Pass --where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The closure is meant to help contain the spill. The river could be closed for days or weeks as workers try to remove the oil from the river.  As the spill moves south, it is hoped that the Coast Guard will be able to open more locks to allow the traffic to move downriver.

The Port of New Orleans expects to loose $100,000 for every day the river is closed.   That figure, however, does not take into account losses sustained by private businesses such as terminal operators and tug boat operators.

New Orleans and surrounding parishes draw their fresh water supply from the Mississippi River.  For now, officials say water is safe to drink.  Communities downriver from the spill have shut off their intakes to prevent the oil from contaminating supplies.  Testing of water in New Orleans has turned up no contaminants.  However, residents in the Algiers section of the city have been urged to use water in moderation, until independent testing confirms the city's findings.  

During a news conference in New Orleans, Coast Guard spokesman Stephen Lehmann  said the tugboat operator pushing the barge had only an apprentice mate's license, and no one else on the barge  had a license. To pilot a tugboat, the operator should have had a master's license, Lehmann said.  The tug is operated by DRD Towing Co., LLC, of Harvey of Harvey, Louisiana.

Officials from the state environmental department were working to contain the spill to prevent it from going further down river.   Contractors have set up oil booms at several of the major openings into an environmentally sensitive marsh and a National Wildlife Refuge.  The impact the oil spill had on wildlife is not yet apparent.


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