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Mississippi River Oil Spill Towing Company Had Spotty Safety Record

Jul 29, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP An inexperienced pilot was operating another tugboat owned by the same towing company involved in last week's Mississippi River oil spill when it sank 11 days earlier.  According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that  company, DRD Towing out of Harvey Louisiana, had also failed a May safety audit and faces probation or revocation from the American Waterways Organization, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred when a 600-foot tanker and a barge loaded with fuel collided. The spill occurred about 1:30 a.m. central time last Wednesday near the Crescent City Connection, a pair of New Orleans bridges. The barge split in half, spilling more than 419,000 gallons of tar-like oil into the river. The barge’s owner, American Commercial Lines, immediately took responsibility for the oil spill.

The ill-fated barge was being pushed by the tugboat the Mel Oliver. Last week, the US Coast Guard determined that no one on the Mel Oliver had the proper licensing for piloting a tugboat. The operator on the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision had only an apprentice mate’s license, and no one else on the barge had a license. To legally pilot a tugboat, an operator is required to have a master’s license.

Now it turns out that the pilot of the Ruby E., another DRD tugboat that sank on the Mississippi River on July 18th just four miles from last week's collision was also being piloted by an apprentice mate.  Three days ago, the Coast Guard had said that the Ruby E.'s crew was properly licensed, but has since issued a correction.  

So far, the Coast Guard has refused to release further details about its investigation the Ruby E. sinking, or the oil spill. Officials from DRD have also not returned the Times-Picayune's calls requesting comment.

Meanwhile, those who make their living on the Mississippi River near New Orleans got a bit of good news today, as the river was reopened to traffic.  It had been closed since the oil spill, and at least 200 vessels were backed up as a result.  According to The Times-Picayune, the Coast Guard allowed an additional 60 ships to travel through the 100-mile closed section of the Mississippi River yesterday, and officials expect the river to be fully reopened to commerce by the end of Tuesday.

However, the Coast Guard is still maintaining a "safety zone" where ships will be cleaned before heading north or south of the closed zone, and vessels will have to travel slowly to avoid impacting the cleanup effort.  Majors tankers and large ships will be allowed through the zone first, but it could be several days before all barges and smaller vessels are cleared through the area.

Last week, officials from the Port of New Orleans said that the port was losing at least $100,000 in revenue every day it stayed shut.   That figure, however, does not include income lost by the thousands of people who rely on the port to make their living.

The sunken barge, still leaking oil, has been secured against the Crescent City Connection Bridge.  The Coast Guard is working on a plan to remove the remaining oil from the barge, so that it can be removed from the river.  Removal of the barge is at least several days away.

Despite the river being reopened to some traffic, cleanup of the spill is far from over.  So far, only 72,000 gallons out of the more than 400,000 spilled have been cleaned up. It could be weeks before the cleanup is completed

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