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Towboat Captain Refuses to Testify at Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing

Nov 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The absent captain of a towboat involved in last summer's Mississippi River oil spill has refused to testify at a Coast Guard hearing investigating the disaster.  In addition to Captain Terry Carver, four officials from the towing company that employed him have also refused to address the hearing.

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 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.

The role of Carver is vital to determining just who or what is to blame for the Mississippi River oil spill.  At the time of the spill, the Mel Oliver was being piloted by apprentice mate John Bavaret.  But because he did not hold a proper license, Bavaret should never have been allowed to steer the Mel Oliver without supervision.

It has since been learned that Carver abandoned his post aboard the Mel Oliver on July 20.  Last month, Bavaret testified that Carver told him he had to travel to Illinois to deal with a problem he was having with his girlfriend.  Carver had promised to return 18 hours later, but never did.   

Bavaret told the hearing that Carver’s absence forced him to take on both his own duties, and those normally performed by the towboat’s captain.  In addition to Bavaret, only two deckhands were aboard the ship.  Because he was doing double duty, Bavaret testified that he only had time for quick naps on the rare occasions he had down time.

Despite his fatigue, Bavaret said he was awake at the time of the accident, and his claims were backed up by one of the Mel Oliver deckhands.  But the other deckhand aboard the towboat testified that Bavaret may have fallen asleep at the helm.

In addition to Carver, four officials from DRD Towing, the company that staffed the Mel Oliver, have refused to testify at the hearing.  They include owners Daniel Dantin Jr. and Randall Dantin, as well as the company's former port captains, or vessel managers, Jim Sellers and Gary Daigle.

DRD's safety record has come under fire since the spill.  It turns out that 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.  It is also known that DRD had failed a safety audit in May, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Operators, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry

Despite the refusal of the five witnesses to testify, a Coast Guard spokesman told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Friday that it was not known if any of them could face reprimand.

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