Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing Finally Ends

After more than six weeks, the Coast Guard hearing into last summer’s <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Mississippi_River_Oil_Spill">Mississippi River oil spill has come to an end.  On Wednesday, its final day, the hearing turned into a blame game, as  attorneys for the towing company, barge owner and tanker involved in the spill all tried to deflect responsibility away from their clients.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and a barge -carrying 419,000 gallons of oil – being towed by the tug 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.  

During the hearing, it was confirmed that the Mel Oliver’s captain, Terry Carver, had abandoned his post just days before the spill.  Members of the crew said he had gone ashore on July 20 to deal with a problem with his girlfriend.  Carver had promised to return to the vessel within 18 hours, but never did.  Carver himself refused to testify at the hearing.

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.  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.

The spotty safety record of DRD Towing, the company that staffed the Mel Oliver, was also discussed at the hearing.  Shortly after the spill, it was learned that the that pilot of another DRD-staffed tugboat, the Ruby E., 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.

Marine surveyor James Hawkins, who performed part of that American Waterways Operators  audit, said he recorded 52 infractions by the company, which he described as a significant  compared with the number of offenses he typically finds during similar audits.

Hawkins told the hearing that he expressed his concern to Budwine & Associates, the company hired by   DRD  to perform the audit, and recommended that other vessels owned by the towing company be inspected.  Budwine & Associates pulled Hawkins from the audit and continued without him. The principle from Budwine & Associates, who said he considered executives at DRD to be his “friends”,  testified  that Hawkins was removed from the safety audit because of tension between him and DRD personnel.

In closing statements yesterday, the attorney for DRD Towing tried to place all of the blame for the spill on Carver and Bavaret.  Bavaret and Carver conspired to deceive DRD Towing and “commit payroll fraud” by covering for each other when they were ashore, the attorney said.

An attorney for American Commercial Lines, the Indiana company that owns the Mel Oliver and barge, also placed blame on Carver and Bavaret.  He asserted the accident happened because Bavaret fell asleep at the helm of the Mel Oliver, a result of fatigue he suffered because of Carver’s absence.  He also called Bavaret’s claim that he lost control of the Mel Oliver and barge after being distracted by malfunctioning radar and jammed steering “baloney”.

Both attorneys also put some blame on the pilot of the Tintomara, which they said was speeding downriver and should have called the Mel Oliver earlier to announce its intention to pass the vessel.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the Tintomara blamed a lack of governmental oversight of the towing industry for the spill.

A draft of the Coast Guard’s final report on the Mississippi River oil spill should be ready by  the end of the year. The document will include a conclusions about what caused the spill, as well as suggestions for new rules that may prevent a similar disaster in the future.

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