Towboat Pilot Testifies at Mississippi Oil Spill Hearing

The improperly licensed pilot at the helm of a towboat involved in the July 23 <"">Mississippi River oil spill told a Coast Guard hearing yesterday that the vessel’s captain was on shore, visiting his girlfriend, when the oil spill occurred.  With Captain Terry Carver nowhere to be found, piloting of the towboat, the Mel Oliver, was left to the ship’s 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.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on 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.

Yesterday, Bavaret spoke publicly for the first time about his role in the spill.  Bavaret, who had been working on the Mississippi for 15 years, said he began his assignment on the Mel Oliver more the week before the accident.   Carver was scheduled to begin his stint on the same vessel on July 15, but did not show up until late in the evening.  During that time, Bavaret piloted the towboat along the Mississippi without supervision.

Later, Carver asked Bavaret to cover for him so he could go to Illinois to deal with personal problems relating to his girlfriend.  Bavaret testified that on July 20, Carver left the towboat via a lifeboat, promising to return in 18 hours.  However Carver never showed, even after Bavaret asked him to return because the Mel Oliver had a heavy workload.

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.

When the oil spill occurred at 1:30 a.m. on July 23, Bavaret was trying to repair the Mel Oliver’s radar, which had suddenly malfunctioned.  It was only when he heard a warning from the Tintomara that he realized the tanker was heading straight for the barge being towed by the Mel Oliver.  He tried to move the barge out the way, but said the Mel Oliver’s steering system jammed.  Bavaret also said that the vessel’s wing meter, which is supposed to detect whether the vessel has turned, was also broken.

During his testimony, Bavaret acknowledged ignoring radio transmissions from both Coast Guard personnel and the crew of the Tintomara who were trying to warn the Mel Oliver of the impending danger.  According to Bavaret, his radio microphone had fallen to the floor and that he did not want to risk reaching for the device.

Bavaret also testified that it wasn’t unusual for DRD Towing, the Harvey, LA company that staffed the Mel Oliver, to have improperly licensed pilots at the helms of its ships.  Bavaret said he filled in for absent captains on several towboats, and knew of several other DRD employees who had done the same.

Since the Mississippi River oil spill occurred, questions have been raised about DRD’s safety record.  It turns out the that 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.

Monday, a subcontractor for  Budwine & Associates, the company DRD paid to conduct that audit, testified that he uncovered 52 serious violations during his inspection of some of the company’s towboats.  When he recommended subjecting DRD to greater scrutiny, he was removed from the audit.

The principal of Budwine & Associates testified last week that the inspector was removed from the DRD safety audit because of tension between him and DRD personnel.  Fred Budwine told the hearing that he has worked with DRD Towing for years and considered its executives to be his “friends.”

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