Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing Starts TodayAug 12, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
A hearing scheduled to start today in New Orleans could finally shed light on who is ultimately to blame for last month's Mississippi River oil spill. Though the Coast Guard, which is conducting the hearing, has not issued an official witness list, reports earlier this month indicated that both the pilot of the tanker and the captain and steersman of the tugboat involved in the oil spill were "parties of interest", and it is widely expected that they will be among those to testify.
The Mississippi River oil spill occurred when a 600-foot tanker- the Tintamora - and a barge loaded with 419,000 gallons fuel collided. The spill occurred about 1:30 a.m. central time July 23 near the Crescent City Connection, a pair of New Orleans bridges. The barge split in half, spilling much of the tar-like oil it was carrying 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.
The Mississippi River was closed for six days, and ships must still move as slowly as safely possible along most of the stretch from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, so their wakes don't disrupt the continuing oil spill cleanup.
The sunken barge was finally removed from the river on Sunday. Crews pumped 136,000 gallons of pure oil out of the barge before it was hauled away. Skimmer boats have removed 165,000 gallons of oily water from the river, and crews have hauled off about 7,000 cubic yards of oily debris from the shore.
Since the accident, questions have been raised about DRD’s safety record. According to the 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. The captain was not aboard the tugboat at the time of the collision.
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. DRD had also 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.
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 Tintamora 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.
American Commercial Lines, the owner of the barge, has taken responsibility for the clean-up of the oil spill, but not the collision that caused it. Because American Commercial Lines denies responsibility for the collision, the company has said that it plans to seek protection from oil spill lawsuits that name it as a defendant.