Mississippi River Oil Spill Tanker Pilot Says Towboat Was ErraticOct 10, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
The pilot at the helm of a tanker involved in the July 23 Mississippi River oil spill near New Orleans told a Coast Guard hearing yesterday that just before the accident, the towboat involved looked as though it was being operated by someone who "had had a stroke". Chance Gould, pilot of the Tintomara, said the towboat cut across the river in front of his tanker for no apparent reason, causing the Tintomara to run over the oil-laden barge the vessel was towing.
The collision of the Tintomara and the barge being towed by the Mel Oliver resulted in the worst oil spill ever to occur on the lower Mississippi River. 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 days, and the environmental impact of the disaster is still being assessed.
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.
The Coast Guard hearing into the spill resumed yesterday in New Orleans, following a two-month hiatus caused in part by the landfall of hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Yesterday, Gould testified that the towboat Mel Oliver ignored whistles, warning lights and demands over the radio to back up.
"The way it looked to me, it looked like someone had had a stroke on the boat," Gould said.
Lawyers for American Commercial Lines LLC, the owner of the Mel Oliver and the barge it was towing, questioned Gould, and suggested that he was in the wrong by failing to allow the towboat to cross the river. But Gould stood his ground, saying that it is a towboat's responsibility to communicate its intentions when it plans to cross the river in front of a ship.
According to radio transmissions released by the Coast Guard in August, 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.
The Coast Guard hearing is expected to last several more days. Among the witness likely to be called is John Bavaret, pilot of the Mel Oliver.
Once the hearing is over, the presiding Coast Guard official could issue a recommendation that civil or/or criminal penalties be filed against the parties involved, as well