July 2008 Mississippi River oil spill goes to court

Jen DeGregorio of the Times Picayune follows the trial of DRD Towing, the company that caused the July 2008 Mississippi River Oil Spill. It is a story of incompetence resulting in a huge oil spill affecting the Mississippi River and surrounding habitat. This series began on October 9, 2008 and will continue until the verdict is reached. The transcripts that follow are unbelievable. Too bad its been buried in the Money section…

Thursday October 9, 2008

Coast Guard resuming hearings into July oil spill
Tow firm officials, pilot may testify
By Jen DeGregorio

The Coast Guard’s investigation of a July oil spill on the lower Mississippi River will reconvene this morning after a nearly two-month hiatus.

After wrapping up the first round of hearings in mid-August, the Coast Guard postponed testimony for longer than expected after hurricanes Gustav and Ike slammed the Gulf Coast last month.

The summer spill in New Orleans was one of the worst on record for the lower Mississippi, dumping 280,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil from a barge that collided with the Liberian-flagged tank ship Tintomara. The accident shut down river traffic for days and disrupted commerce for weeks while emergency workers attempted to mop up the oil that spread from the French Quarter to the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill also sparked public outrage after revelations that an improperly licensed mariner was at the helm of the Mel Oliver towboat that was pushing the oil-filled barge at the time of the accident. Terry Carver, the master licensed pilot who was supposed to be in charge of the Mel Oliver, was nowhere to be found when the Coast Guard arrived at the scene of the crash on July 23.

Congress got involved last month, when the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation convened a hearing about the spill. Subcommittee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chastised Coast Guard officials for failing to create rules for regular inspection of towing vessels four years after Congress ordered the agency to do so. The Coast Guard historically has not inspected towboats such as the Mel Oliver.

Coast Guard documents obtained for the subcommittee hearing revealed that a deckhand aboard the Mel Oliver tested positive for illegal drugs after the July crash. Drug and alcohol tests came back negative for the improperly licensed mariner operating the Mel Oliver during the accident. The Coast Guard said during its August hearings that drug and alcohol tests also came back negative for the crew of the Tintomara.

The Coast Guard investigation is supposed to determine what caused the collision. During two full days of testimony in August in the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans, the agency heard from crew aboard the Tintomara as well as an official with Vessel Traffic Service, which monitors river traffic. Capt. Jan Stefan Bjarve, who was in charge of the Tintomara, blamed the Mel Oliver for causing the accident. He testified that the towboat abruptly turned the barge into the path of his oncoming ship about 1:30 a.m.

At the hearing, the Coast Guard played an audio recording that captured desperate cries of warning from the Tintomara to the crew aboard the Mel Oliver, who did not respond.

New witnesses are expected to testify at today’s hearing, although Coast Guard spokeswoman Cheri Ben-Iesau did not identify them. Randy Waits, an attorney for DRD Towing, the company that staffed the Mel Oliver, said he expected the Coast Guard to call the Louisiana River pilot who was steering the Tintomara during the accident.

Other witnesses to be called in the days ahead include officials with DRD Towing and American Commercial Lines, the barge company that owned the Mel Oliver and the barge involved in the crash, as well as barge industry experts, according to Waits. Carver, who was supposed to be at the helm of the Mel Oliver, and John Bavaret, the apprentice who was steering the vessel during the accident, also will testify.

DRD Towing has been involved in at least two other accidents on the lower Mississippi involving improperly licensed pilots. Just days before the Mel Oliver’s barge collided with the Tintomara in New Orleans, the towboat Ruby E sank after colliding with the Martin Challenger near Westwego. The Ruby E also was piloted by an apprentice mate, or steersman.

In 2004, DRD put an improperly licensed pilot at the wheel of the Mr. Craig towboat, which lost control of a barge and punctured the Eagle Memphis, dumping 2,100 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi near Algiers Point. The pilot of the towboat held a license that did not allow him steer a vessel as large as the Mr. Craig.

“DRD is very interested in the facts that will be developed in this investigative process,” Waits said of the Coast Guard hearings, which do not have a scheduled end date. “When all the facts are revealed, it’s going to show that DRD was operating their vessels in compliance with all the rules.

Friday October 10, 2008

River pilot grilled on oil spill
He says towboat hit ship he helmed
By Jen DeGregorio

The Coast Guard launched a second round of hearings Thursday about a July oil spill on the lower Mississippi River by grilling the man at the helm of the ship that rammed through a fuel-filled barge that turned suddenly into its path.

Chance Gould, the Louisiana river pilot who was steering the ship Tintomara, squarely blamed the accident on the towboat Mel Oliver, which was pushing the barge. Gould said his downriver journey from St. Rose took a disastrous turn when the barge veered across the river without time for the Tintomara to maneuver.

“The Mel Oliver ran into us,” Gould said during proceedings set to continue this morning inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans. The Coast Guard is scheduled today to hear from Mario Munoz, an executive with American Commercial Lines, the company that owns the barge and the Mel Oliver.

The July 23 crash unleashed from the barge nearly 280,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil that spread from the French Quarter to the Gulf of Mexico, sparking one of the worst environmental disasters on the river in recent memory. About 90 percent of the 200 miles affected by the spill has been decontaminated, although some areas still need work, according to Jeff Dauzat, a scientist with the state Department of Environmental Quality who has been coordinating the clean-up effort.

In his condemnation of the Mel Oliver, Gould echoed Captain Jan Steven Bjarve of the Tintomara, who testified during the first round of Coast Guard hearings. Bjarve, a licensed mariner from Sweden, said the Mel Oliver caused the crash by turning without warning in front of the Liberian-flagged ship over which he held top authority. Louisiana law requires state-commissioned river pilots, such as Gould, to guide foreign ships along local waterways. However, assigned ship captains can overrule pilots commands if they are deemed inappropriate.

Like Bjarve, Gould testified that he had no reason to believe that the Mel Oliver would turn from its place along the east bank of the river until it was too late to avoid impact. Gould recalled six unanswered calls from the Tintomara to warn the Mel Oliver by radio that it had moved onto a crash course with the ship. Vessel traffic controllers monitoring the river did not warn the Tintomara of a problem aboard the Mel Oliver until minutes before the collision, Gould said.

The Mel Oliver’s lack of response to the Tintomara’s warnings shocked Gould, who described the silence “as if someone had a stroke on the boat.”

Attorneys representing American Commercial Lines and DRD Towing, the Harvey company that staffed the Mel Oliver, questioned whether Gould followed protocol as the Tintomara approached the Mel Oliver. Randy Waits, who represents DRD Towing, said maritime rules typically require ships to “schedule a meeting” with passing vessels by radio or sounding a whistle.

Gould said such rules are not necessary when a ship captain is sure that other watercraft are on a safe path. It would be chaotic and could clog radio channels if every vessel called out to one another while passing, Gould said.

After today’s scheduled testimony from Munoz, the Coast Guard may call from a list of more than 30 witnesses. Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard’s investigating officer, has not released a schedule for testimony or an end date for the investigation, which Waits said could last more than 10 days.

Witnesses to be called include John Bavaret, an apprentice mate who was piloting the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision. Bavaret, who sat quietly through Thursday’s testimony, has the equivalent of a learner’s permit and was not supposed to be steering the Mel Oliver without supervision. Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot assigned to steer the Mel Oliver, is also on the list of witnesses but was not present for Thursday’s hearing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Barge association VP quizzed on oil spill
DRD Towing was ejected from group

By Jen DeGregorio

The Coast Guard continued its probe of a July oil spill on the Mississippi River Friday by quizzing an executive with a barge industry association about safety standards for members, including two companies involved in the spill.

Robert Clinton, vice president of safety with the American Waterways Operators, described the association’s responsible carrier program, which requires members to draft a plan to comply with federal maritime laws and other internal regulations. American Waterways Operators members are periodically audited for compliance with the program.

Clinton testified that DRD Towing, the Harvey company that staffed the towboat pushing the barge that spilled 280,000 gallons of fuel into the river in New Orleans, was booted from the American Waterways Operators in August after the group failed safety audits earlier that year.

Randy Waits, an attorney with DRD Towing, said in an interview after Clinton’s testimony that it appeared as if the American Waterways Operators came down hard on the company in response to public outrage about the oil spill. After DRD Towing failed its safety audit earlier this year, the company applied for probationary status with the American Waterways Operators. The designation comes with stricter regulation, including annual safety audits instead of the typical triennial checks.

Clinton testified that the summer spill had nothing to do with DRD Towing’s expulsion from the American Waterways Operators. The organization decided to revoke the company’s membership because DRD Towing failed to provide a statement agreeing to comply with the tighter probationary guidelines, Clinton said. The well-publicized oil spill did inspire the group to draft tighter requirements, which have not yet been approved, for members.

Although Clinton did not specify what aspects of the audit DRD Towing failed to meet, his statements came as another blow to the company, which has taken the brunt of criticism during the Coast Guard investigation. River pilot Chance Gould on Thursday blamed the towboat, the Mel Oliver, for abruptly veering into the path of his oncoming ship, the Tintomara, which crashed through the barge and sparked one of the worst environmental disasters on the lower Mississippi in recent memory. During a first round of hearings in mid-August, other crew members aboard the Tintomara also condemned the Mel Oliver.

Coast Guard officers who arrived at the scene of the 1:30 a.m. crash discovered an apprentice mate named John Bavaret at the helm of the Mel Oliver. His credentials to steer the towboat are the equivalent of a learner’s permit. Coast Guard officers could not find Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot assigned to the Mel Oliver that day.

DRD Towing has been involved in at least two other accidents on the Mississippi with improperly licensed crew. Just days before the Mel Oliver collision, the towboat Ruby E sank after colliding with the Martin Challenger near Westwego.

The Coast Guard previously told The Times-Picayune that the Ruby E was being piloted by an apprentice mate, but it said today that the man at the helm held a mate’s license, which is higher than an apprentice license. He nonetheless lacked the proper credentials to drive the towboat without assistance from a licensed captain, who was not aboard the Ruby E on July 13, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Anastacia Visneski.

Randy Waits, an attorney for DRD Towing, confirmed that the Ruby E pilot held a mate’s license.

In 2004, an improperly licensed pilot from DRD Towing was steering the Mr. Craig towboat, which lost control of a barge and hit the Eagle Memphis, dumping 2,100 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi near Algiers Point. The pilot held a license that did not allow him to steer a vessel as large as the Mr. Craig, according to Coast Guard documents.

Hugh Straub, an attorney for the Tintomara, asked Clinton why DRD Towing’s record did not spark the American Waterways Operators to censure the company earlier. Clinton responded by saying the association did not track members’ safety records, nor did the group report incidents to the Coast Guard or other regulatory agencies.

“We are not cops,” Clinton said. “That is not our role.”

American Commercial Lines, the Indiana company that owns the Mel Oliver and the barge that spilled the oil, remains in good standing with the American Waterways Operators, Clinton said. A former American Commercial Lines executive, Chris Brinkop, is an owner of DRD Towing, which was hired to staff and operate the Mel Oliver and barge. Clinton said Brinkop is no longer employed by American Commercial Lines.

Tuesday October 14, 2008 –

Coast Guard hearings continue
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune October 14, 2008 11:41AM

The radio aboard the towboat Mel Oliver was working just fine on July 23, when the vessel veered suddenly across the Mississippi River without answering frantic radio warnings that it was on a crash course with an approaching ship.

The revelation came during the latest round of Coast Guard hearings probing the massive oil spill that occurred when the ship Tintomara plowed through a fuel barge being pushed by the Mel Oliver. Michael White, a boat inspector for the Mel Oliver’s owner, American Commercial Lines, testified Tuesday that the radio functioned properly during a survey of the vessel performed after the accident.

Aside from a few broken lights and smoke detectors, the survey found that the Mel Oliver was seaworthy even after the barge crash in New Orleans, according to White.

“All the reports came back that the boat handled well,” he said from a witness stand inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans, where the Coast Guard will continue its hearings this morning.

Why the crew of the Mel Oliver did not reply to multiple warnings from the Tintomara and vessel traffic controllers remains one of the biggest questions about the 1:30 a.m. river crash. Coast Guard investigators who arrived at the scene found an improperly licensed pilot at the helm of the Mel Oliver. John Bavaret, an apprentice mate, had the equivalent of a learner’s permit and should not have been steering the vessel alone. Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot assigned to the towboat, was not around.

Both men are expected to testify for the Coast Guard’s investigation, although neither was present during Tuesday’s proceedings.

Crew aboard the Mel Oliver did respond to at least one ship call on the morning of the spill, according Louisiana river pilot Briscoe Brown, who was at the helm of a ship ahead of the Tintomara on a trip downriver. Brown did not have contact with the Mel Oliver, but he testified that vessel traffic audio recordings revealed that the Mel Oliver answered the ship ahead of his, which called to say it would pass the towboat.

As his ship approached the Mel Oliver, Brown said the towboat appeared to be on a safe path near the river’s east bank. The Mel Oliver did not answer his general radio call to inform vessels of his position on the river, Brown said.

Chance Gould, the river pilot steering the Tintomara, testified last week that the Mel Oliver appeared to be idling near the east bank of the river when the vessel pushed the barge without warning into the path of his ship. Gould and Brown both said the weather was mild and traffic was moderate on the morning of the crash.

The Coast Guard will continue its probe this morning with scheduled testimony from Mario Munoz, an executive with American Commercial Lines, the Indiana company that owns the Mel Oliver and barge. Munoz has been scheduled for prior Coast Guard appearances, but his testimony was postponed.

The Coast Guard has a list of roughly 30 witnesses that it expects to call in the days ahead. The agency has not set an end date for the hearings.

Wednesday October 15, 2008

Barge company executive testifies at Coast Guard hearing

The Coast Guard continued its investigation of a July oil spill this morning with testimony from an executive of American Commercial Lines, the Indiana company that owned the barge and towboat involved in the spill.

Mario Munoz, ACL’s vice president of vessel operations, said his company has cut ties with DRD Towing, the Harvey company that staffed the Mel Oliver towboat owned by ACL. DRD Towing has taken much of the heat for the oil spill, which ocurred when the Mel Oliver pushed a fuel barge abruptly into the path of the oncoming ship Tintomara, which split the barge in half. The broken barge dumped 280,000 gallons of No. 6 oil into the Mississipi River in New Orleans, where the accident occurred.

Coast Guard officers who arrived at the 1:30 a.m. crash found an apprentice mate at the helm of the Mel Oliver. John Bavaret, who holds the equivalent of a learner’s permit, was not licensed to steer the towboat alone. Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot assigned to the Mel Oliver, was nowhere to be found.

Munoz said the July 23 incident prompted ACL to end its 10-year business releationship with DRD Towing, which charters and operates ACL-owned boats.

Munoz recalled one other instance in which ACL intervened with DRD Towing. He said ACL executives met with DRD Towing officials after learning that the company planned to staff one of its vessels with a mariner whose license had expired. As a result of the meeting, DRD Towing did not allow the mariner with the expired license to operate the ACL-owned vessel, according to Munoz.

Until the summer oil spill, ACL considered DRD Towing “a reputable company,” Munoz said. ACL performs annual, internal inspections of companies that charter ACL boats, and Munoz could not recall DRD Towing ever failing checks.

In August, DRD Towing got kicked out of American Waterways Operators, a trade organization for the barge industry that requires members to undergo periodic safety audits. DRD Towing failed an audit earlier this year and was expelled from AWO after failing to provide a letter agreeing to abide by stricter standards for probationary members, according to testimony last week from an official with the group.

Munoz said ACL was audited for AWO last December and remains in good standing with the group.

Thursday October 16, 2008

Towboat firm loses business
Barge owner reacts to river spill

Jen DeGregorio

DRD Towing, a Harvey company involved in a July oil spill on the Mississippi River at New Orleans, took another beating during the latest round of testimony in a Coast Guard investigation of the incident.

An executive with American Commercial Lines, the Indiana barge company that employed DRD Towing, said Wednesday that the spill prompted his firm to sever a 10-year relationship with the towing company. American Commercial Lines owns the barge and towboat involved in the spill and had hired DRD Towing to staff and operate the vessels.

The accident occurred when the towboat Mel Oliver pushed the barge into the path of the oncoming ship Tintomara, which split the barge in half and unleashed 280,000 gallons of oil into the river. An apprentice mate who did not have a license to operate the Mel Oliver alone was at the helm when the accident occurred. The location of the master pilot assigned to the Mel Oliver remains a mystery.

Mario Munoz, American Commercial Lines’ vice president of vessel operations, said DRD Towing has long been “a reputable company” that gave his business little reason to worry. Munoz recalled an instance in which American intervened with DRD after learning that the company planned to staff one of its vessels with a mariner whose license had expired. As a result of the meeting, DRD did not allow the mariner to operate the vessel, according to Munoz, who did not give the date when the meeting occurred.

Munoz said American Commercial Lines otherwise takes a hands-off approach with its vessels once they are chartered to companies like DRD Towing, because their contracts require partners to follow federal regulations and other guidelines. American performs annual inspections of its entire fleet of about 3,000 barges and 120 towboats, Munoz said. The company also audits contractors such as DRD Towing about once a year.

American Commercial Lines does not specifically track contractors’ records of marine accidents, according to Munoz, who said he did not learn until the July 23 oil spill that DRD Towing had been involved in another accident on the Mississippi. The Ruby E towboat, which is not owned by American Commercial Lines, sank July 12 after colliding with the Martin Challenger near Westwego.

American Commercial Lines was also unaware that DRD Towing had failed a safety audit earlier this year performed for American Waterways Operators, a trade organization that requires members to undergo periodic inspections, Munoz said. American Waterways Operators subsequently expelled DRD from the group rather than granting it probationary status, as the tow company had requested.

Munoz said American Commercial Lines was audited for American Waterways Operators in December and remains in good standing with the group.

DRD Towing has taken the bulk of the heat for the collision during weeks of testimony in the Coast Guard probe, which has proceeded inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans. Crew members aboard the Tintomara have squarely blamed the Mel Oliver for the crash.

Audio recordings have revealed multiple unanswered calls from the Tintomara and vessel traffic controllers warning that the Mel Oliver was on a crash course with the ship. The radio on board the Mel Oliver worked just fine, and the towboat was otherwise seaworthy when examined after the accident, according to testimony Tuesday from a boat inspector with American Commercial Lines.

Randy Waits, an attorney for DRD Towing, said the company has been unfairly blamed for the accident. Although an improperly licensed pilot was steering the Mel Oliver, DRD Towing officials could not have prevented master-licensed pilot Terry Carver from disappearing on the day of the crash, he said. Waits declined to say why Carver was missing, saying details would emerge in the days ahead.

The Coast Guard plans to call DRD Towing officials and crew members from the Mel Oliver, including Carver. Daily schedules are not available for the hearings, and the Coast Guard has not set an end date for its investigation.

Waits said DRD Towing lost insurance coverage after the oil spill, prompting American Commercial Lines to stop doing business with the company.

“We’re operating at the highest standards in the industry,” Waits said. “We were performing every legal requirement.”

Thursday October 16, 2008

Attorneys probe lack of oversight of towboat industry

A Coast Guard investigation of a July oil spill took a philosophical turn Thursday when an attorney for the ship involved in the accident criticized lax government oversight of the towboat industry.

Michael Butterworth, who represents the ship Tintomara, told Coast Guard investigating officer Melissa Harper that the agency needs a regular inspection program for towboats. The comment came after Harper stopped several witnesses from answering Butterworth’s questions about the lack of supervision of the towboat industry.

The Coast Guard is trying to determine the cause of a crash that occured when a towboat called the Mel Oliver abruptly turned the oil-filled barge it was pushing into the path of the oncoming Tintomara. It was later discovered that the man steering the towboat did not have the proper credentials, while the company that employed him had failed safety audits performed on behalf of American Waterways Operators, a private trade organization.

Butterworth and his counterpart, attorney Hugh Straub, have asked witnesses testifying for the Coast Guard investigation why DRD Towing, the Harvey company operating the Mel Oliver, was allowed to continue working despite problems with its AWO audit. An official with AWO responded by saying his organization does not act like “cops” and has no real authority.

The Coast Guard, which polices the nation’s waterways, also has little authority over towboats such as the Mel Oliver. Classified as uninspected towing vessels, or UTVs, towboats are not required to undergo regular Coast Guard inspections. Congress attempted four years ago to rein in UTVs, ordering the Coast Guard to draft a towboat-review program that has not yet been implemented.

The summer oil spill in New Orleans put a spotlight on the issue, prompting a hearing last month by the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transporation during which lawmakers urged the Coast Guard to speed towboat rules.

Thursday’s hearing in New Orleans highlighted the difficulties of monitoring towboats without regular Coast Guard inspections.

When he examined the Mel Oliver after the crash, Coast Guard inspector Harvey Bates said he found serious violations that prompted him to issue an order preventing farther travel. The problems, mainly code violations, did not appear to be related to the collision. Other Coast Guard officers discovered that the Mel Oliver was being piloted by an apprentice, who did not have a license to operate the vessel alone.

Fred Budwine, whom DRD Towing hired to perform its AWO audit, described rampant problems that caused the company to flunk an inspection earlier this year. He said DRD Towing could provide “no paper trail” documenting training of its employees, vessel inspections or policies that govern safety, among other problems.

After DRD Towing failed Budwine’s audit, AWO revoked the company’s membership in August.

Kyle Smith, whom the Coast Guard hired to perform an independent inspection of the Mel Oliver after the accident, spotted problems aboard the vessel, which is owned by the Indiana barge company American Commercial Lines. He described a stereo and home theater system in the wheelhouse, which he recommended be removed because it could distract pilots during a voyage.

Butterworth asked Smith if such a system could prevent a pilot from hearing radio calls from other mariners. Crew aboard the Mel Oliver did not answer repeated warnings from the ship Tintomara and vessel traffic controllers in the minutes leading up to the collision. Smith said that noise from a stereo system could drown out radio calls, although there was no indication that the Mel Oliver crew was listening to the system before the accident.

Smith found other defects aboard the Mel Oliver, such as broken lights, which he described as minor.

“It had nothing to do with the operation of the boat,” Smith said.

Monday October 20, 2008

Inspector testifies about violations by DRD Towing
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune October 20, 2008 7:36PM

A third straight week of Coast Guard hearings probing a July oil spill opened Monday with more scrutiny of the Harvey towing company involved in the accident as well as the private trade group that oversees the barge industry.

Marine surveyor James Hawkins recalled inspections he performed earlier this year that found dozens of serious violations by DRD Towing, the firm that was operating the Mel Oliver towboat that pushed a barge into the path of the oncoming ship Tintomara. The July 23 collision unleashed 280,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil from the barge into the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

Hawkins audited DRD Towing earlier this year on behalf of American Waterways Operators, a trade group that requires members to pass periodic safety evaluations. Hawkins recorded more than 50 infractions by the company, which he described as a significant sum compared with the number of offenses he typically finds while auditing companies for AWO.

“Fifty-two items; that’s a lot,” said Hawkins, who works as a subcontractor for Budwine & Associates, the Destrehan firm DRD Towing hired to perform the audit.

Among the more serious offenses, Hawkins described a lack of documentation that mariners employed by DRD Towing had completed any required training programs during the previous three years.

During walk-on checks of five vessels owned by DRD Towing, Hawkins found problems with smoke detectors, expired fire extinguishers, dirty oil filters and evidence of pollution leaking overboard. Hawkins also said he believed that mariners had been “smoking in bed” on at least one vessel, where he found an ashtray and ashes in the “linen.” The Mel Oliver, which is owned by the Indiana company American Commercial Lines, was not part of the AWO exam.

Hawkins was so disturbed by his discoveries that he wrote an e-mail urging Budwine & Associates to probe additional vessels owned by DRD Towing. The company subsequently pulled Hawkins from the audit and continued without him. During testimony last week, Budwine & Associates principal Fred Budwine said he removed Hawkins due to tension between him and DRD Towing. Budwine said he has worked with DRD Towing for years and considered its executives to be his “friends.”

Even with Hawkins off the case, DRD Towing flunked the audit and had to request probationary status with AWO. The group expeled the company in August, although an AWO executive testified two weeks ago that the group did so only after DRD Towing failed to write a letter agreeing to tighter safety standards for probationary members.

Hawkins’ testimony Monday inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building, where the Coast Guard hearings have proceeded, did little to help the case of DRD Towing. The company has taken much of the heat for the oil spill after the Coast Guard revealed that an improperly licensed pilot was at the helm of the Mel Oliver during the collision. Apprentice mate John Bavaret is scheduled to testify this morning.

Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard’s investigating officer, also made a pointed remark about the role of the AWO in regulating the barge industry. After questioning Budwine, who returned to the witness stand Monday, she called the AWO audits a “useless task” because the group does not inform the Coast Guard or themaritime industry about companies that fail inspections.

Both Budwine and Hawkins said they were barred from discussing the audits with anyone except executives of DRD Towing. Although AWO requires safety audits, the group does not collect paperwork documenting the checks. Instead, AWO receives a letter saying whether a member passed or should be put on probation, which requires annual safety inspections instead of the usual triennial checks.

Towboats such as the Mel Oliver are considered uninspected towing vessels, or UTVs, which are not subject to regular Coast Guard inspections. AWO has stepped in to fill the lack of government oversight, although the group’s only real power is over membership. Congress ordered the Coast Guard four years ago to create a program for inspecting UTVs, although the rules have not yet been implemented.

Randy Waits, an attorney for DRD Towing, said his company moved quickly to fix the violations Hawkins recorded aboard the company’s vessels.

“All the deficiencies were corrected by July,” Waits said.

“The things that they found that were deficiencies they aren’t the safety issues that were involved in this event,” Waits said. “The issue here was a vessel where there was an improperly licensed pilot, but on every vessel he audited, the vessels were properly manned.”

Wednesday October 22, 2008

Pilot not on board when oil spilled
Assistant testifies he covered for missing captain, forged logs
By Jen DeGregorio

The mariner who was supposed to be in charge of the towboat involved in a July oil spill on the Mississippi River had jumped ship to visit his girlfriend and was not on board at the time of the accident, the pilot who was left behind the wheel testified Tuesday.

The whereabouts of master pilot Terry Carver have been the biggest mystery of the oil spill, which occurred when a fuel barge being pushed by the Mel Oliver towboat turned abruptly into the path of the ship Tintomara. Coast Guard officers found apprentice mate John Bavaret at the helm of the towboat. Bavaret holds the equivalent of a learner’s permit and was not allowed to steer the Mel Oliver without supervision.

Tuesday was the first time Bavaret spoke publicly about his role in the accident, which has been the subject of a Coast Guard probe that has dragged on for three weeks inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans. Seated in the courtroom witness stand, Bavaret described his 15-year history working on the Mississippi. Bavaret, who said he never finished high school, began his maritime career at 18 as a towboat deckhand, a title he later improved with training to become an apprentice mate, or steersman.

Bavaret said his ill-fated trip on the Mel Oliver began with Carver more than a week before the July 23 accident. Carver was scheduled to begin his two-week assignment the morning of July 15, but he did not show up until late that evening, leaving Bavaret alone all day to steer the towboat. Several days later, Carver asked Bavaret to cover for him while he took a trip to Illinois to deal with “personal problems . . . with him and his girlfriend,” Bavaret said.

Bavaret recalled Carver getting off the Mel Oliver on July 20 near a ferry dock in Reserve, where he used a lifeboat to reach shore. Carver promised to return in 18 hours but never showed up, even after Bavaret asked him to come back because the Mel Oliver had a heavy workload. Bavaret said he had to work double duty to cover for Carver, stealing naps during down time on the vessel. Two deckhands acted as the Mel Oliver’s only other crew members.

Still, everything appeared to be going fine aboard the Mel Oliver until minutes before the oil spill, which occurred about 1:30 a.m. Bavaret said the radar suddenly malfunctioned after departing upriver from the dock at Stone Oil in Gretna, where the Mel Oliver had picked up a load of fuel.

While Bavaret was busy attending to the radar, he heard calls of warning from the Tintomara. When he looked up, Bavaret said he noticed that the Mel Oliver’s barge had veered into the path of the ship, which was “headed straight for him.” Bavaret said a jammed steering system prevented him from maneuvering the unwieldy barge out of harm’s way. A swing meter, which is supposed to detect whether the vessel has turned, was also broken, Bavaret said.

Asked why he did not respond to repeated warnings from the Tintomara and vessel traffic controllers, Bavaret said the radio microphone had fallen to the floor and that he did not want to risk reaching for the device with the Mel Oliver in such a precarious state. Moments later, the Tintomara plowed through the barge, unleashing 280,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil into the river, one of the worst spills on the waterway in recent memory.

“I was just stunned,” Bavaret said of his feelings after the collision. “I couldn’t believe what happened.”

Bavaret’s testimony also shed light on the inner workings of a towboat company that partners with the biggest names in the barge industry. At DRD Towing, the Harvey firm that employed Bavaret, it was apparently common practice for low-level mariners to take charge of vessels that were supposed to be controlled by master-licensed pilots.

Bavaret admitted filling in for masters on several different towboats for DRD Towing, and he said he knew of three or four other DRD Towing employees who engaged in similar practices. Bavaret said he would earn a higher rate of pay when he assumed the role of a master, or captain, than he would when he worked as an apprentice mate.

Pay stubs presented during Tuesday’s hearings showed that Bavaret sometimes earned higher pay than his standard earnings for apprentice work, although the documents did not indicate why rates would fluctuate.

Executives with DRD Towing knew that Bavaret had handled the Mel Oliver alone on at least one occasion, although it is unclear if the company knew that other mariners were handling vessels they were not licensed to steer.

Bavaret testified that he told an executive of DRD Towing that he was alone on the Mel Oliver on the first day of his two-week assignment with Carver. He said a company official told him to “be careful” until Carver arrived late for duty on July 15.

However, Bavaret said he lied to DRD Towing officials after Carver abandoned the Mel Oliver a few days later. During daily phone calls from the company, Bavaret said he told DRD Towing officials that Carver was on board when he actually had left for Illinois. Bavaret also signed Carver’s signature in daily logs of the vessel’s activities, according to documents presented Tuesday.

DRD Towing did not provide any kind of training to Bavaret during the six consecutive months he worked for the company before the oil spill, he said. Bavaret also described the Mel Oliver, which is owned by the Indiana company American Commercial Lines, as being in poor condition.

Bavaret is scheduled to return to the witness stand this morning, where he will answer questions from attorneys for American Commercial Lines and DRD Towing.

Thursday October 23, 2008

Towboat apprentice may have been asleep at the wheel at time of oil spill accident, according to testimony
Thursday October 23, 2008, 10:04 PM

A deckhand from the towboat involved in a summer oil spill offered a different version of events from the one recounted by the seaman piloting the Mel Oliver during a Coast Guard probe of the accident.

To hear deckhand Kevin Pettigrew tell the tale, steersman John Bavaret might have fallen asleep at the helm.

Pettigrew testified Thursday that Bavaret was “unresponsive” after the Mel Oliver turned an oil-filled barge into the path of an oncoming ship, causing a collision that dumped about 280,000 gallons of fuel into the Mississippi River.

Jolted from his sleep by the approaching ship’s warning whistle, Pettigrew said he later found Bavaret slumped in his chair in the wheelhouse with his head hanging down. Pettigrew recalled lifting the listless pilot from the captain’s seat so that Pettigrew could move the towboat to safe harbor, where it was later boarded by Coast Guard investigators.

Asked whether Bavaret could have been unconscious in the moments before the July 23 crash, Pettigrew said it was possible, although he could not say for sure. Bavaret had been working double duty for several days to cover for master-licensed pilot Terry Carver, who supposedly abandoned the Mel Oliver to deal with “personal problems” with his girlfriend in Illinois. As an apprentice mate, or steersman, Bavaret was not licensed to operate the Mel Oliver alone.

In Bavaret’s account of the accident, which he gave during hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, a jammed steering system prevented him from moving the Mel Oliver and its barge out of the path of the ship Tintomara. Bavaret said the towboat shifted off course after the radar suddenly malfunctioned, distracting his attention from the trip upriver.

It was not until he heard radio calls of warning that Bavaret looked up and noticed that the barge had taken a disastrous turn. He said he did not answer the calls because his radio microphone was on the floor, out of reach while he was trying to maneuver the unruly Mel Oliver.

Bavaret recalled being in a state of shock after the collision, although he made no mention of passing out or falling asleep before or after the incident. Drug and alcohol tests performed on Bavaret after the accident came back negative.

Pettigrew further contradicted Bavaret’s testimony when he disputed the seaman’s claim about problems with the steering and the radar.

“I know Mr. Bavaret said there was a problem with the steering, but in fact I know there was not, ” said Pettigrew, who also recalled that the radar was working as Pettigrew piloted the Mel Oliver after the crash.

Pettigrew said he had no idea that Carver had abandoned the Mel Oliver and felt “irritated” and “a little mad” when he learned of the captain’s absence after the accident.

Still, Pettigrew said he would have felt safe even if he knew that Bavaret was in charge of the towboat.

“He was a very good steersman, ” Pettigrew said of Bavaret.

Although Pettigrew said he did not know of Carver’s absence on the day of the oil spill, he said he was well aware that Carver and Bavaret sometimes covered for each other when one wanted time off the vessel. Bavaret described the arrangement in testimony this week, saying he filled in for Carver on several occasions.

Pettigrew said he spoke to Carver by phone after the accident and exchanged “choice words” with the absentee captain, who he said “screwed everything up for everybody.” Carver never told Pettigrew why he decided to jump ship on the evening of July 20, he said.

Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard’s investigating officer, also grilled Pettigrew on the physical condition of the Mel Oliver. She presented photographs that showed the boat in a state of disarray, with junk spread across the deck. A room in the vessel appeared to be covered in oil, with rags strewn across the floor to sop up the mess.

“The boat was just dirty, ” said Paul Arabie, a deckhand who often works aboard the Mel Oliver but was not on the vessel the night of the collision.

Arabie, who also testified Thursday, described Bavaret as “a very good boatman.” He said Carver was likewise skilled but that the captain often ran late for assignments.

Carver’s desertion of the Mel Oliver to visit his girlfriend is apparently but one example of the mariner’s attachment to the unnamed woman.

Arabie recalled journeys during which Carver would monitor his girlfriend’s whereabouts via an online tracking device he had attached to her truck.

He said Carver often had his laptop open in the wheelhouse, tuned to the site that followed his girlfriend because it gave him “peace of mind.” Sometimes Carver would do this while talking to her on the phone, Arabie said.

Friday October 24, 2008

Towing company may have paid low-level mariners more money to cover for higher ranking employees
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune October 24, 2008 1:03PM

A payroll supervisor described a complicated system of fluctuating pay rates at DRD Towing, the Harvey company involved in a summer oil spill, during a hearing this morning for a Coast Guard probe of the accident. The testimony adds a new dimension to claims by apprentice mate John Bavaret that DRD Towing often asked him to fill in for absentee mariners of a higher rank and paid him more money to perform the work.

Bavaret was at the helm of the towboat Mel Oliver on July 23 when the vessel turned the oil barge it was toting into the path of an oncoming ship, which sliced through the barge and dumped about 280,000 gallons of fuel into the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot who was supposed to oversee Bavaret on the Mel Oliver, had deserted the vessel several days earlier.

Julie Schmidt, the payroll supervisor, said she did not know why DRD Towing often asked her to pay employees at varying rates. However, she described the difficulties of keeping up with ever-changing pay grades. Mariners at the company are typically paid flat daily rates for their work, with higher-ranking employees typically earning more money.

Bavaret said earlier this week that he frequently worked as a captain aboard towboats operated by DRD Towing, earning better pay than the standard rate he received as an apprentice mate. Mariners with an apprentice mate license are not allowed to steer a vessel without supervision by a captain.

“Everybody in the office knew about it,” Bavaret testified on Wednesday, refering to DRD Towing’s alleged practice of recruiting low-level mariners to fill in for higher ranking employees.

Some of Bavaret’s pay stubs were entered as exhibits for the Coast Guard investigation. Documents displayed at public hearings showed that Bavaret earned pay at varying rates for his work at DRD Towing, although the paperwork did not appear to indicate why the company paid him erratically.

Tuesday October 28, 2008

Towboat pilot gave conflicting accounts of accident, testimony says
Posted by Jen DeGregorio / The Times-Picayune October 28, 2008 6:13PM

The man piloting the towboat involved in a summer oil spill gave “different stories” about what happened before the accident, according to testimony Tuesday from an official with the Harvey company that employed the mariner.

Mo Chiasson, the former safety coordinator for DRD Towing, said pilot John Bavaret offered several different explanations of how he lost control of the towboat Mel Oliver, causing the fuel barge it was toting to collide with an oncoming ship and dump 280,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Chiasson said he left DRD Towing in mid-September.

Chiasson recalled rushing from his home in Mandeville to the scene of the 1:30 a.m. crash, where he said Bavaret cited various problems with the radio, steering, radar and generator in the moments before the collision. Chiasson also complained that he could not get “a straight answer” from Bavaret regarding the whereabouts of Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot who was supposed to be in charge of the towboat.

An apprentice mate, Bavaret is not licensed to steer the Mel Oliver alone. Yet Carver left Bavaret behind the wheel of the vessel several days before the July 23 oil spill. Bavaret testified last week that he agreed to let Carver off of the Mel Oliver as part of an arrangement the two seamen had to cover for each other when one needed time off.

Chiasson said he “really got upset” when he learned that Bavaret had let Carver abscond without informing DRD Towing.

“Why didn’t y’all tell anybody?” Chiasson remembered asking Bavaret, who he said did not definitively say why Carver decided to jump ship.

Bavaret testifed last week that Carver deserted the Mel Oliver in order to drive to Illinois to patch up problems with his girlfriend.

Chiasson described Bavaret as “real lethargic-speaking” and “impaired” after the accident, echoing testimony last week from a Mel Oliver deckhand who said Bavaret was “unresponsive” after the collision and speculated that the mariner may have been asleep at the helm. Drug and alcohol tests performed on Bavaret have come back negative.

“There was never a firm line of what happened,” Chiasson said.

Bavaret has testified that the Mel Oliver strayed off course after the radar malfunctioned and distracted him from the trip upriver while he fiddled with the device. Radio calls alerted Bavaret that the vessel was headed for trouble, but a jammed steering system prevented him from moving the barge out of the way of the ship, he said.

Chiasson said that Bavaret told him the radio also malfunctioned, explaining why he failed to answer repeated warnings from the oncoming ship and vessel traffic controllers.

However, Bavaret testified that he did not answer radio calls because the microphone was on the floor and out of reach while he was attempting to steer the Mel Oliver away from the ship.

Chiasson said that he performed tests of the Mel Oliver’s systems after the collision but found no problems.

A second witness who testified Tuesday said Bavaret may have answered at least one radio call after the accident.

Angel Manuel Rodriguez, the wheelman of the Mr. Kevin towboat and a witness to the incident, said he heard another tugboat call the Mel Oliver more than an hour after the crash. He said he heard a “groggy” voice respond from the Mel Oliver, although it was unclear whether it was Bavaret who answered.

“I had steering problems, and my radio, I couldn’t get it to work properly,” Rodriguez recalled hearing from a mariner aboard the Mel Oliver.

Chiasson’s testimony also revealed that Carver has been involved in at least one other marine accident this year. On May 4, Carver was piloting the Pam D towboat when the vessel struck the Louisiana Star towboat on the Mississippi near Reserve. The Louisiana Star was moored at the time it was hit by the Pam D, which was carrying a an empty tank barge at the time, according to the Coast Guard.

Chiasson said Carver told him the accident occurred while he was working on the computer and became momentarily blinded by the light from the machine. Chiasson said he did not know whether Carver was using his personal computer or a computer that belonged to the Pam D.

Paul Arabie, a DRD Towing deckhand who has worked with Carver in the past, testified last week that Carver often used his laptop while in the wheelhouse in order to monitor his girlfriend via an online tracking device attached to her truck.

The Coast Guard investigation, now well into its fifth week, will resume this morning with testimony from a second Mel Oliver deckhand, David LeBlanc, and other witnesses.

Wednesday October 29, 2008

Deckhands deliver different accounts of July oil spill
Posted by Jen DeGregorio / The Times-Picayune October 29, 2008 5:54PM

The steering system of the towboat involved in a summer oil spill in New Orleans may have been jammed by debris strewn inside a lower cabin of the vessel, according to testimony given Wednesday during a Coast Guard probe of the accident.

The junk could have shifted and lodged against parts of the steering system that ran through the cabin, said Coast Guard inspector Harvey Bates. The theory supports claims by steersman John Bavaret that the Mel Oliver’s systems froze in the moments before the July 23 accident, which occurred when the towboat turned a fuel barge it was toting into the path of an oncoming ship. The shattered barge dumped about 280,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Mississippi River, one of the worst spills on the waterway in recent memory.

The Coast Guard investigation, now well into its fifth week, is supposed to determine what caused the collision. Bavaret, an apprentice mate who should not have been operating the Mel Oliver alone, has testified that he lost control of the vessel while trying to fix malfunctioning radar. Alerted by radio calls that the towboat had taken a perilous turn, Bavaret could not maneuver the barge because the steering apparatus was stuck, he said.

Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard’s investigating officer, presented photographs of the Mel Oliver that showed the cabin in a state of disarray. Rags were thrown around the floor to sop up leaking oil.

David LeBlanc, one of two deckhands aboard the Mel Oliver during the incident, testified Wednesday that the towboat was in poor physical condition.

LeBlanc offered a narrative of events leading up to the collision that differed somewhat from the version of the incident provided by Kevin Pettigrew, the Mel Oliver’s other deckhand.

LeBlanc remembered watching television in the galley when he heard the whistle of the approaching ship, which prompted him to run to the door. After the collision, LeBlanc said he ran to the wheelhouse to find Bavaret, who “didn’t respond” for some time.

In LeBlanc’s account, Bavaret was in much better shape than in the description Pettigrew gave in testimony last week. Pettigrew speculated that Bavaret could have been asleep at the helm, describing the mariner in a virtually unconscious state after the collision. Pettigrew said he had to lift Bavaret from the captain’s chair so that he could take control of the Mel Oliver and steer it to safe harbor.

LeBlanc did not remember Pettigrew removing Bavaret from the chair or taking the helm. LeBlanc described Bavaret as being more composed, eventually moving around the vessel and even steering the Mel Oliver after the accident. He also recalled Bavaret saying that he did not see the approaching ship and had problems with the steering.

LeBlanc was also well aware that master-licensed pilot Terry Carver had abandoned the Mel Oliver several days before the oil spill, leaving Bavaret to work double duty. Pettigrew said he did not learn of Carver’s absence until after the collision.

Still, LeBlanc was not worried that Bavaret was steering the Mel Oliver alone. Although he was only an apprentice mate, Bavaret “was a better captain than Terry was,” LeBlanc said.

Carver, who Bavaret said deserted the Mel Oliver to visit his girlfriend in Illinois, was evidently preoccupied with the woman for days before he jumped ship. LeBlanc recalled that Carver monitored his girlfriend with a computer tracking system while steering the Mel Oliver.

Carver’s computer habits have come up in previous testimony. Deckhand Paul Arabie, who has worked with Carver but was not on the Mel Oliver during the accident, testified last week that Carver often tracked his girlfriend on the computer while working in the wheelhouse.

An official with DRD Towing, the Harvey company that employed Carver, testified Tuesday that Carver got into a marine accident earlier this year after being momentarily blinded by the glare of his computer screen. Carver was allegedly piloting the towboat Pam D on May 4 when the vessel collided with the towboat Louisiana Star on the Mississippi near Reserve. It was unclear whether Carver was tracking his girlfriend at the time.

Friday October 31, 2008

Several key witnesses decline to testify in Coast Guard oil spill probe
Posted by Jen DeGregorio / The Times-Picayune October 31, 2008 5:41PM

Five key witnesses have refused to testify for the Coast Guard’s investigation of a summer oil spill in New Orleans, including the mariner who abandoned the towboat involved in the incident.

Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot who was supposed to be in charge of the towboat Mel Oliver, and four officials from the Harvey company that employed him have filed statements with the Coast Guard declining to be interviewed. Coast Guard spokesman Stephen Lehmann was unsure Friday afternoon whether the witnesses could face reprimand for failing to testify.

Coast Guard investigating officer Melissa Harper has questioned nearly two dozen witnesses during a series of public hearings meant to determine the cause of the July 23 spill. The accident occurred when the Mel Oliver abruptly turned a fuel barge it was toting into the path of an oncoming ship, which cut through the barge and unleashed about 280,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil into the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

Carver’s role in the incident has become the central point of controversy in the Coast Guard probe. Apprentice mate John Bavaret testified that Carver abandoned the Mel Oliver several days before the oil spill and left him behind to work double duty. Bavaret, whose license does not allow him to steer towboats without supervision, said he agreed to let Carver off of the vessel as part of an arrangement the two mariners had to cover for each other when one needed time off.

Testimony has also depicted Carver as a man obsessed with his girlfriend. The mariner allegedly jumped ship in order to drive to Illinois to patch up problems with the woman. Deckhands who worked with Carver also described the seaman’s habit of monitoring his girlfriend with an Internet tracking device, which he often checked from a laptop while he steered vessels.

DRD Towing, the Harvey company that employed Carver, has also taken some heat during the Coast Guard investigation. Bavaret testified that the company often allowed low-level mariners to take charge of vessels they were not licensed to steer alone, paying them more money to fill in for higher-ranking employees.

The company also failed a safety audit earlier this year performed for American Waterways Operators, a trade organization that requires members to undergo periodic inspections. Among more than 50 violations, the audit disclosed that DRD Towing had no paperwork documenting employee training and vessel inspections. American Waterways Operators expelled DRD Towing in August.

Four officials with DRD Towing have refused to testify for the Coast Guard investigation, including owners Daniel Dantin Jr. and Randall Dantin, as well as the company’s former port captains, or vessel managers, Jim Sellers and Gary Daigle.

Randy Waits, an attorney for DRD Towing, declined to comment for this story. William Hidalgo, who Waits said represents Terry Carver, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Thursday November 6, 2008

After weeks of dull and dramatic testimony, Coast Guard oil spill hearings conclude
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune November 05, 2008 6:06PM

The Coast Guard on Wednesday wrapped up public testimony for the agency’s exhaustive investigation of a summer oil spill on the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

Investigating officer Melissa Harper will compile her findings in a report she hopes to draft by the end of the year. The document will include her conclusions about what caused the spill as well as suggestions for new rules that may prevent a similar disaster from occurring in the future. The report is subject to review by the commandant, or top officer, of the Coast Guard.

The July 23 spill occurred when the towboat Mel Oliver turned a fuel barge it was toting into the path of the oncoming ship Tintomara. The collision unleashed about 280,000 gallons of oil from the barge into the river, closing the waterway for days and sparking a multi-million-dollar environmental cleanup.

For her analysis, Harper will have to cull a coherent narrative from a series of public hearings that stretched over the course of four months, stopping short after two days in August and reconvening Oct. 9. Testimony from nearly two dozen witnesses has run the gamut from esoteric descriptions of boat mechanics to hair-raising accounts of life aboard the Mel Oliver, including the moments leading up to the crash.

Among other revelations, witnesses testified that the master-licensed pilot who was supposed to be in charge of the Mel Oliver had deserted the vessel several days before the spill, leaving an apprentice mate at the helm to work double duty. John Bavaret, the apprentice who was covering for master pilot Terry Carver, said the two mariners often filled in for each other when one needed time off from work.

In closing statements Wednesday, attorney Randy Waits, who represents the Harvey company that employed Bavaret and Carver, described his client as a hapless victim. Bavaret and Carver conspired to deceive DRD Towing and “commit payroll fraud” by covering for each other, Waits said.

James Wright, an attorney for American Commercial Lines, the Indiana company that owns the Mel Oliver and barge, painted his client as similarly defenseless.

Wright said Bavaret bore special responsibility for the accident. He described Bavaret as “sleep-deprived” in the moments before the collision, alluding to testimony that Bavaret rested by snatching erratic naps while working overtime for Carver. Wright also pointed to statements from deckhands aboard the Mel Oliver that Carver was unresponsive after the oil spill.

“Common sense says that he fell asleep at the wheel,” Wright said.

Wright also expressed skepticism about Bavaret’s testimony that he lost control of the Mel Oliver and barge after being distracted by malfunctioning radar and jammed steering, calling the explanation “baloney.”

Waits and Wright also criticized the pilot of the ship Tintomara, which they said was speeding downriver and should have called the Mel Oliver earlier to announce its intention to pass the vessel, which was traveling in the opposite direction.

Michael Butterworth, an attorney for the Tintomara, did not point fingers at individuals involved in the oil spill but blamed the lack of government oversight of the barge industry.

Towboats such as the Mel Oliver are classified as uninspected towing vessels, or UTVs, and are therefore not subject to regular Coast Guard inspections. Although Congress passed legislation four years ago requiring the Coast Guard to rein in UTVs, the agency has yet to implement a regular inspection program. Butterworth said barge industry lobbyists have slowed the rulemaking process and thwarted earlier attempts to crack down on UTVs.

A private trade group, American Waterways Operators, tries to compensate for the lack of government supervision. The group requires its members to abide by safety standards, but it does not issue fines or inform the Coast Guard or public when members fail inspections.

“It really makes me embarrassed to be an American,” Butterworth said, urging the Coast Guard to make good on promises to create a regular inspection program for towboats by 2009.

Harper also called her final witness Wednesday. Michael White, who oversees a voluntary towboat inspection program for the Coast Guard, said the Cooperative Towing Vessel Exam Program allows companies to request Coast Guard inspections to determine whether vessels meet federal safety standards.

Although the Coast Guard critiques companies that fail requested inspections, the agency does not issue fines or otherwise track companies that do not meet standards. The 11-year-old program has not had a request for an inspection for at least two years, White said.

December 16, 2008

AWOL Mariner to testify in Coast Guard probe
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune December 15, 2008 5:43PM
Categories: Port of New Orleans

The seaman who was missing from his post on the towboat involved in a summer oil spill in New Orleans, and then refused to testify for a Coast Guard probe of the accident, plans to break his silence.

Terry Carver has asked the agency to reopen its months-long investigation of the spill, which concluded in November after lengthy testimony from others involved in the accident. Carver, who initially invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, could testify as soon as this week.

“Carver … requested to come in and tell his side of the events,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Jaclyn Young.

Several other witnesses declined to appear for the Coast Guard probe, but Carver’s absence drew the most controversy because of the crucial role he played in the accident that closed the Mississippi River for days and sparked a massive environmental cleanup.

Carver was supposed to be at the helm of the towboat Mel Oliver on the morning of July 23, when the vessel turned the oil barge it was pushing into the path of the oncoming ship Tintomara, which jackknifed the barge and dumped 280,000 gallons of fuel into the river. Coast Guard officers who arrived at the scene of the collision found steersman John Bavaret in charge. As a steersman, or apprentice mate, Bavaret was not licensed to operate the towboat alone.

Carver’s whereabouts remained a mystery until Bavaret testified that the captain abandoned the Mel Oliver as part of an arrangement the two mariners had to cover for each other when one wanted time off of the vessel. Bavaret said he let Carver off of the towboat several days before the accident, after Carver said he needed to go to Illinois to patch up problems with his girlfriend. Carver promised to return in 18 hours but never showed, Bavaret said.

Two deckhands from the Mel Oliver testified that they were well aware that Carver and Bavaret often filled in for one another, although only one deckhand knew that Carver was gone from the towboat on the day of the collision with the Tintomara.

Along with providing further details about why he left the Mel Oliver, Carver’s testimony could also shed light on the practices of DRD Towing, the Harvey company that staffed and operated the towboat for owner American Commercial Lines. Bavaret testified that DRD Towing officials often asked him to fill in for mariners of a higher rank and paid him extra to perform the work.

Four officials with DRD Towing filed statements with the Coast Guard declining to be interviewed for the agency’s investigation. Attorneys representing DRD Towing and the Tintomara did not return requests for comment. The Coast Guard could not provide contact information for Carver, who Young said is representing himself. Carver’s last known residence was in Glasford, Ill.

The introduction of Carver’s testimony could postpone a report on the accident by investigating officer Melissa Harper, who is in charge of the Coast Guard’s probe of the spill. Harper has been reviewing testimony and other evidence to determine what caused the collision, a task she hoped to complete by the end of the year. Harper’s findings, which could result in fines or other sanctions for those involved in the accident, are subject to review by the commandant, or top officer, of the Coast Guard.

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~ by maringouin on Wednesday, October 22, 2008.

3 Responses to “July 2008 Mississippi River oil spill goes to court”

  1. […] Oil Spill. This series began on October 9, 2008 and will continue until the verdict is reached. Transcripts from trial dates held in 2008 are found here. And these are still buried in the Money […]

  2. How do I access the trsanscripts?

    Thank you

  3. Public records request of the Coast Guard?

    They’re military, so good luck with that…

Comments are closed.

 
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