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Mississippi River Oil Spill Captain Testifies

Dec 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The captain of the Mel Oliver, the tugboat involved in this summer's Mississippi River oil spill, says he left his post days before the accident because of girlfriend troubles.  According to a report in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Terry Carver wasn't worried about leaving the vessel in the hands of his apprentice mate, because despite not being properly licensed, the apprentice mate often piloted towboats alone.

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 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 spill was the worst to ever occur on the lower Mississippi River.

The role of Carver is vital to determining just who or what is to blame for the Mississippi River oil spill.  At the time of the spill, the Mel Oliver was being piloted by apprentice mate John Bavaret.   At a Coast Guard hearing into the spill this fall, it was confirmed that  Carver had left  his post aboard the Mel Oliver.  Members of the towboat's crew said he had gone ashore on July 20 to deal with a problem with his girlfriend.  Carver had promised to return to the vessel within 18 hours, but never did.

Carver had initially refused to testify at the hearing.  But early this week, the Coast Guard announced he had had a change of heart, and the hearing was reconvened today.  According to the Times-Picayune, Carver testified that he did leave the ship on July 20 after a relative told him his girlfriend had been spotted with another man.

Carver's testimony that apprentice mate Bavaret had piloted vessels on his own is noteworthy.  In October, Bavaret also testified that it wasn’t unusual for DRD Towing, the Harvey, LA company that staffed the Mel Oliver, to have improperly licensed pilots at the helms of its ships.  Bavaret said he filled in for absent captains on several towboats, and knew of several other DRD employees who had done the same.

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 Operators, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

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