Tugboat Caused Mississippi River Oil Spill, Tanker Captain Claims

The captain of a tanker involved in last month’s <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Mississippi_River_Oil_Spill">Mississippi River oil spill said that the tugboat Mel Oliver was to blame for the collision that caused the disaster.  During a hearing in New Orleans yesterday, Captain Jan Stefan Bjarve said that just before the collision, the Mel Oliver, towing a barge loaded down with 419,000 gallons of oil, unexpectedly turned into the path of his tanker, the Tintomara.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and the barge 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 busy river channel was closed for six days to allow for cleanup of the spill. Even now, ships must move slowly to avoid disrupting the continuing cleanup. The hearing, which resumes today, is trying to determine blame for the oil spill.

American Commercial Lines, the owner of the barge, has taken responsibility for the clean-up of the oil spill, but not the collision that caused it. Because American Commercial Lines denies responsibility for the collision, the company has said that it plans to seek protection from oil spill lawsuits that name it as a defendant.

Bjarve was piloting the 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.

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.

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.

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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