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 Environment » 2008 Mississippi River oil spill leads to federal charges

2008 Mississippi River oil spill leads to federal charges

Federal prosecutors charged a Harvey tugboat company Friday in the July 2008 collision on the Mississippi River between a boat, whose pilot was not authorized to be at the controls, and a cargo ship. The accident caused almost 300,000 gallons of fuel oil to leak into the river, shutting down the waterway for days.One of the now-closed DRD Towing Company’s co-owners, Randall Dantin, 46, of Marrero, also was charged with obstruction of justice. Authorities allege Dantin deleted electronic payroll sheets from a company laptop computer knowing it would impede the Coast Guard during its investigative hearings into the July 23, 2008, collision between the Mel Oliver and the Tintomara, a 590-foot Liberian-flagged tanker, according to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office.

Despite frantic radio calls from the Tintomara’s wheelhouse that went unanswered in the early morning hours, the Mel Oliver, piloted by an apprentice mate because the captain was trying to mend fences with a girlfriend in Illinois, pushed the barge into the path of the larger vessel just upstream from the Crescent City Connection. The collision punctured and partly sank the barge the Mel Oliver was pushing. Fuel oil flowed more than 100 miles downstream into the Gulf of Mexico, authorities said at the time.

The Coast Guard found that the apprentice, John Bavaret, was licensed, but that his license did not authorize him to operate the vessel without the captain beside him. The captain assigned to the Mel Oliver was Terry Carver, who left Bavaret behind to work double duty, according to the Coast Guard hearings.

DRD Towing, which provided staffing for the Mel Oliver, is charged under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and the Clean Water Act in the two-count bill of information. The firm is accused of "creating hazardous conditions" by allowing employees without Coast Guard licenses to operate vessels and by paying boat captains to operate a vessel for 24 hours without relief, knowing that the Coast Guard finds that the use of "over-fatigued mariners" creates hazardous conditions, according to Letten’s office.

In the second count, filed under the Clean Water Act, DRD Towing is charged with the "illegal negligent discharge" of 282,686 gallons of fuel oil, according to Letten’s office.

Dantin, who refused to testify before the Coast Guard during its months of investigative hearings, could not be reached for comment Friday. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Randy Waits, the attorney who represented DRD Towing at the hearings, could not be reached for comment.

On the first count, for assigning employees to vessels without proper licenses, DRD Towing faces a maximum fine of the greater of $500,000 or twice the gain or loss resulting from the criminal offense. On the second charge, DRD Towing faces a fine of up to $200,000, or twice the gain or loss resulting from the criminal offense.

The Coast Guard Criminal Investigative Service and the Environmental Protection Agency investigated the case, which is prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dorothy Manning Taylor.

In an unrelated incident, federal prosecutors on Thursday charged Offshore Service Vessels LLC of Galliano with dumping oily bilge water overboard. The firm owned and operated the Gould, which served as an ice-breaking research vessel contracted by a national foundation, according to a statement Letten’s office released.

Between July and September 2005, the crew intermittently discharged bilge water without first passing it through the vessel’s oily-water separator, according to prosecutors. The Coast Guard investigated the case.

Paul Purpura can be reached at ppurpura@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3791.

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