Towboat company pleads guilty in oil spill case

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Published: September 9,2010

Tags: accident, environment, oil spill, river traffic, transportation

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 pleaded guilty yesterday to operating vessels with unqualified and overworked captains.

DRD Towing Co., a company based a few miles upriver from the French Quarter, pleaded guilty to violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and the Clean Water Act, said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Also, Randall Dantin, a 46-year-old co-owner of the company, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. He was accused of deleting payroll sheets from a company computer that showed some improperly licensed workers were used to steer boats, prosecutors said.

On July 23, 2008, the DRD 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, even though the tanker never ruptured, and closed the Mississippi for six days.

Prosecutors said DRD pleaded guilty to running towing vessels in Louisiana and Texas with unqualified and overworked crews between Jan. 1, 2007, and July 23, 2008.

Company captains were paid extra money for working many more hours than they were allowed to and operating boats without the required backup captains, prosecutors alleged.

DRD also pleaded guilty to illegally discharging oil in the 2008 accident, a misdemeanor. 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.

Letten said the case “demonstrated the extraordinary damage to our environment which can occur when maritime companies and individuals fail to meet basic standards through shortcuts and simple greed.”

Ivan Vikin, the special agent in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement in Louisiana, said DRD had “a history of operating undermanned vessels that are often staffed with unqualified personnel. This manner of ‘doing business’ is both dangerous and criminal and will not be tolerated.”

DRD faces fines of up to $700,000. Sentencing has been set for Dec. 15 before U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.

Dantin faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing has been set for Dec. 8 before Lemelle.

Vinny Mosca, Dantin’s lawyer, said his client “made an error in judgment” and that “he wants to get all this behind him.” Mosca said Dantin was no longer working on the river.

A lawyer for DRD did not return messages seeking comment.

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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