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Mississippi River Oil Spill Drug and Alcohol Test Results Revealed

Sep 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Officials investigating the Mississippi River oil spill received the results of drug and alcohol tests performed on the crew of the Mel Oliver, the tugboat involved in the accident.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune is reporting that while the apprentice steersman operating the vessel at the time of the collision was clean, a deckhand tested positive for an illicit substance.  Tests on the crew of the other ship involved in the oil spill, the  chemical tanker Tintomara, were all negative.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and the 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 busy river channel was closed for six days to allow for cleanup of the spill.

According to the Times-Picayune, the Coast Guard provided the information on the drug and alcohol testing to the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.  The subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing today focusing on ways to strengthen enforcement efforts aimed at making sure qualified personnel are operating tugboats.

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.  John Bavaret,  the pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision, was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat. Bavaret had only 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.

There were no drugs or alcohol in Bavaret's system at the time of the oil spill, according to tests conducted by the Coast Guard.  One of the deckhands onboard at the time also tested negative, but a second did test positive for drugs. 

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 18, only a few miles from last weeks spill.  It is also known 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.

The Times-Picayune is also reporting that four years ago, staff from DRD Towing was also operating the tugboat Mr. Craig, which lost control of a barge and punched the Eagle Memphis, causing 2,100 gallons of crude oil to sill from the into the Mississippi near Algiers Point.

According to the Times-Picayune, American Commercial Lines has also had problems in the past.    Between 2000 and 2008, American Commercial Lines was managing owner of equipment involved in incidents in which eight people died or went missing.  With the exception of a 2001 accident involving Brown Water Towing, no other company has had a higher toll.

At a news conference in July, 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.


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