Towboat company charged for 2008 river crash

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Published: July 6,2010

Tags: accident, oil spill, river, towboats

NEW ORLEANS — A company whose towboat was involved in a crash with a tanker that caused a major oil spill on the Mississippi River two years ago has been accused of operating vessels with unqualified and overworked captains, federal prosecutors said.

DRD Towing Co. was charged with breaking maritime safety and environmental laws, prosecutors said. Also, one of its owners, Randall Dantin, was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting electronic payroll records the Coast Guard needed to investigate the accident.

On July 23, 2008, the towboat Mel Oliver collided with the tanker Tintomara. A Coast Guard investigation revealed John Paul Bavaret II, a sleep-deprived apprentice mate without a captain at his side, was at the tug’s helm, a violation of Coast Guard rules.

The collision caused 283,000 gallons of fuel to leak and closed the Mississippi for six days. It was one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history, even though the tanker never ruptured.

DRD, a company based a few miles upriver from the French Quarter, was charged with violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and the Clean Water Act.

The charges against DRD and Dantin, 46, were contained in two separate bills of information, which typically signal a plea deal.

Attorneys for DRD and Dantin could not be reached for comment.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said DRD created “hazardous conditions” by operating a fleet of tugboats and barges with unqualified and overworked mariners, often without backup captains onboard.

Also, prosecutors charged DRD with illegally discharging oil in the 2008 accident. The oil that spilled into the river came from a tanker barge the Mel Oliver was pushing. The Tintomara, a 600-foot Liberian-flagged tanker, slammed into the barge and broke it open. DRD faces fines of up to $700,000.

Dantin was accused of deleting electronic payroll sheets from a DRD laptop computer after the Mel Oliver accident, prosecutors said.

If convicted, Dantin faces five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The Coast Guard has not finished its investigation into the accident and not taken any action of its own against the company and individuals involved in the crash, Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann said.

An Associated Press probe that followed the Mel Oliver crash revealed that a federal program to recruit more tugboat pilots may have backfired by allowing thousands of novice captains to take the helm and contributing to a 25 percent increase in the number of accidents on the nation’s rivers.

The AP review of Coast Guard records indicated the U.S. tugboat fleet was increasingly piloted by captains who spent as little as one year in the wheelhouse. At the start of the decade, the Coast Guard was under pressure from the shipping industry to revamp its training and licensing process for river pilots because an older generation of captains in their 50s was beginning to retire, creating a labor shortage, the AP probe found.

The agency scrapped the time-honored “master’s system” in which captains hand-selected rookies for pilot training. Instead, officials began allowing companies to pick trainees and pay for them to become “apprentice steersmen.”

Under the new system, someone could get behind the controls of a tug after just a year, whereas the old arrangement required new pilots to spend years working their way up to the captain’s seat.

The Coast Guard, Congress and the industry have moved to close some of the loopholes in licensing, monitoring and safety revealed by the accident.

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