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Mississippi River Oil Spill Prompts Coast Guard to Start New Towboat Inspection Program

Nov 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

In the wake of last summer's Mississippi River Oil Spill, the U.S. Coast Guard has launched Operation Big Tow.  The Coast Guard says the inspection program will insure that tow boats operating on the Gulf Coast, Mississippi River and Western Rivers system re properly manned and crews have proper licensing.   Operation Big Tow will take place from November through January.

"While the majority of the towing industry operates safely and complies fully with licensing requirements, this comprehensive operation will allow us to identify any companies that may have problems,” said Capt. Verne B. Gifford, chief of prevention Eighth Coast Guard District, said in a press release announcing Operation Big Tow.

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 tow boat 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.  

After the spill, it was learned that 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.  At Coast Guard hearing investigating the accident, it was learned that Carver had gone ashore several days earlier to deal with a problem he was having with his girlfriend.

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 Operators, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.  But despite the failure, the association did not revoke DRD's certification until August, after the oil spill.  

The New Orleans Times-Picayune is reporting that in addition to checking for proper crew licensing,  Operation Big Tow  will monitor whether towboats are following safety standards, such as maintaining appropriate firefighting and communication equipment. Violations could result in the Coast Guard banning a vessel from waterways, issuing fines, or suspending licenses, among other sanctions, the Times-Picayune said.

The Mississippi River Oil Spill has led to calls to reform the towboat industry.  Four years ago, Congress ordered the Coast Guard to create rules requiring the regular inspection of towing vessels and limits on the number of hours that crew members work each day. None of rules have been issued.  Some believe the proposed regulation might have prevented the Mississippi River oil spill.

In September, at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson IV, the Coast Guard’s Director of Prevention Policy for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship, said that the new rules would be implemented sometime in 2009.  However, Rep James Oberstar, D-Minn., Chairman of the House Transportation Committee pushed for a more specific timeline.  Watson said that that the rules would be in place by spring.

However, many lawmakers on the Committee, including Oberstar, pressed Watson to have the new rules in place well before that.

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