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Tanker Captain Pins Mississippi River Oil Spill on Tugboat

Aug 14, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

On the first day of a hearing into last month's Mississippi River oil spill, the pilot of the tanker involved in the incident said that the tugboat Mel Oliver was to blame for the collision that caused the disaster.  The hearing, which resumes today, is trying to determine blame for the oil spill.

Captain Jan Stefan Bjarve was piloting the tanker Tintomara, along with Louisiana river pilot Chester Gould, at the time of the oil spill.  Bjarve told the hearing that the Tintomara had begun its trip down the Mississippi at midnight.  He described the evening as being "calm", and said the weather was pleasant. But at 1:30 a.m. 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.  The Coast Guard played radio transmission recordings from that night that back up Bjarve's claims that he tried desperately to warn the Mel Oliver without success.

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.

Under questioning, Bjarve admitted that he did not order the Tintomara to anchor once he became aware of the danger.   Bjarve said that he was concerned that, because of the tanker's massive size and speed, anchoring quickly might only make things worse.  

The hearing into the Mississippi River oil spill is scheduled to resume this morning.  Gilberto Guevarro, the Tintomara's lookout and anchor watch, is scheduled to testify today.

Once the hearing concludes, the Coast Guard will work on issuing a final report, which could recommend taking action against the parties found to be responsible for the oil spill.  Those consequences could range from fines to criminal charges.

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