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Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing Resumes Today

Oct 9, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Coast Guard is set to resume hearings into the summer's Mississippi River oil spill this morning in New Orleans.  The hearing, which began two months ago, was put on hold after the Gulf Coast was hit by hurricanes Ike and Gustav.  

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the 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.

At the time of the collision, the Mel Oliver was being piloted by John Bavaret, the ship’s apprentice mate.  Bavaret did not have the proper license to pilot a tugboat. Terry Carver, master license pilot of the Mel Oliver, should have been in charge of the vessel but was nowhere to be found when the accident occurred.  It is expected that both Bavaret and Carver will testify at the hearing.

According to radio transmissions released by the Coast Guard, it is apparent that the Mel Oliver received repeated warnings from both Coast Guard personnel and the pilot of the Tintomara to get out of the way in the minutes leading up to the crash. Unfortunately, no one on the Mel Oliver ever responded to the warnings.

It has since been learned that DRD Towing, the company that staffed the Mel Oliver, had a spotty safety record.  The 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.  In 2004,  an improperly licensed DRD pilot was  at the helm of the Mr. Craig towboat, when it lost control of a barge and punctured the Eagle Memphis, dumping 2,100 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi near Algiers Point.

In May, DRD failed a safety audit, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Organization, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

The Coast Guard hearing into the spill began in August.  Among the witnesses who testified over a two-day period was the Tintomara's captain Jan Stefan Bjarve.  He told the hearing that at 1:30 a.m. on June 23, the Mel Oliver suddenly veered into the path of the Tintomara. Bjarve said the Mel Oliver did not signal the turn, nor did vessel traffic controllers issue any warnings. Bjarve said he tried to warn the Mel Oliver repeatedly of the impending danger, but got no response.

Bjarve's account was backed up by Gilberto Guevarra, the Tintomara's lookout.  Guevarra said he became alarmed when he saw a green light, indicating a vessel’s starboard side, ahead in the water. The sighting meant that the Mel Oliver was turning in front of the Tintomara. According to Guevarra, the Tintomara began sounding its warning whistle before he even had time to notify the bridge of the problem, meaning that the tanker’s captain had already spotted the tugboat.

While the Coast Guard has not issued a witness list for the hearing, a spokesperson for the towing company involved in the oil spill told the "New Orleans Times-Picayune" that it is likely the Louisiana River pilot who was steering the tanker Tintomara during the accident will be called to testify.  Various officials from DRD Towing, American Commercial Lines, the barge company that owned the Mel Oliver and the barge involved in the crash, as well as barge industry experts, are also expected to appear, the newspaper said.

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