July 2008 Mississippi River oil spill goes to court – part 2

Jen DeGregorio of the Times Picayune resumes following the trial of DRD Towing, the company that caused the July 2008 Mississippi River 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 section…

Monday February 9, 2009

Two employees of the Harvey company involved in the summer oil spill on the Mississippi River testified Monday that their employer often allowed low-level mariners to fill in for higher-ranking crew. At times, they said, DRD Towing paid its employees extra money for work they were not licensed to perform.

The practice culminated on July 23, when a towboat piloted by an apprentice mate turned the oil barge it was toting into the path of an oncoming ship, dumping 280,000 gallons of fuel into the river in New Orleans.

Terry Carver, the master-licensed pilot assigned to the Mel Oliver towboat, had abandoned the vessel several days before the accident, leaving apprentice mate John Bavaret at the helm. Bavaret’s apprentice-mate license prohibited him from steering a towboat without the supervision of a master-licensed pilot. Both men testified during hearings late last year that DRD Towing often let apprentice mates operate towboats without oversight, offering higher pay rates for the work.

Former port captain Gary Daigle corroborated their statements on Monday, saying that top officials at DRD Towing asked apprentice mates to substitute for master-licensed pilots because the company was short-staffed. Daigle also admitted to helping Carver leave the Mel Oliver several days before the spill, picking him up at a ferry landing in Reserve. Carver allegedly told Daigle that he needed a break from his assignment so that he could retrieve a television from his ex-wife, and Daigle said he lent Carver his truck so that he could run the errand.

Carver testified in December that he left the Mel Oliver to go to Illinois to find his girlfriend, who he said had been spotted with another man. Daigle said he had no idea about the trip to Illinois, and he learned of the oil spill when Carver called him in a panic after the accident. He recalled Carver’s words during the phone call: “I’m fired.”

Daigle said he assumed that Carver had either called for back-up when he left the Mel Oliver or that Bavaret had taken the helm, a prospect that did not alarm him because Bavaret often worked alone. However, Daigle knew the practice was wrong, and he said he warned the owners of DRD Towing that allowing apprentice mates to work unsupervised could cause problems for the company. “If something happens, we’re going to get in trouble,” he recalled telling DRD Towing executives.

Daigle said he became so uncomfortable with the practice that he left his port-captain position and returned to crew-level work. Daigle said he had already stepped down from the managerial role by the time the oil spill had occurred.

Jim Sellers, who was port captain at the time of the accident, also testified Monday that he knew low-level mariners were allowed to step in for higher-ranking crew. At times, unlicensed mariners who work as deckhands were allowed to fill in for licensed apprentice mates.

Sellers and Daigle had initially refused to testify during the hearings. Their testimony on Monday revealed that DRD Towing shut down its operations shortly after the oil spill. Daigle now works at a towing company called Oak Marine, he said. Sellers works for American Commercial Lines, the Indiana barge company that owned the Mel Oliver and the barge involved in the accident.

The Coast Guard will continue questioning Sellers this morning and is scheduled to call a third former port captain at DRD Towing who left the company a few months before the incident. Coast Guard investigating officer Melissa Harper will incorporate their testimony into a report meant to determine the cause of the accident and recommend possible sanctions against any of the involved parties.

Tuesday February 10, 2009

Harvey maritime firm used unlicensed pilot, according to testimony
Posted by Jen DeGregorio, The Times-Picayune February 10, 2009 12:44PM

A former manager for the Harvey company involved in a summer oil spill on the Mississippi River offered more details Tuesday about the firm’s habitual use of improperly licensed mariners, telling a Coast Guard investigator that at least one unlicensed man was given a permanent position as a company towboat captain.

Speaking at a Coast Guard hearing in downtown New Orleans, former port captain Jim Sellers said DRD Towing had trouble finding qualified employees, prompting the company to use improperly licensed crew. Along with the unlicensed captain, DRD Towing also allowed employees with low-level licenses to fill in for higher-ranking mariners, he said.

The company kept a roster of substitutes, and Sellers said apprentice mate John Bavaret was at the top of the list. Bavaret was at the helm of the Mel Oliver towboat on July 23 when the vessel turned an oil barge it was towing into the path of an oncoming ship, spilling more than 280,000 gallons of fuel into the river in New Orleans. Although Bavaret’s license prohibited him from operating the towboat without supervision, the captain who was assigned to the vessel had jumped ship several days before the accident.

Sellers said that Bavaret often worked alone, but that he had no idea that Bavaret had been left to steer the Mel Oliver by Terry Carver, the assigned captain. Carver testified in December that he abandoned the towboat to find his girlfriend in Illinois and that Bavaret took over as part of arrangement the two mariners had to cover for each other. Sellers, who was port captain at the time of the accident, said he learned about the collision minutes after it occurred when a deckhand aboard the Mel Oliver called to tell him what had happened.

“It was such a shock,” he said. Sellers has spoken to Bavaret several times in recent months, and he described the mariner as “remorseful” for his role in the oil spill. After initally refusing to testify for the Coast Guard’s investigation of the accident, Sellers and two other DRD Towing employees recently came forward. The agency, which had closed the public portion of its investigation, reopend hearings on Monday.

During his second day of testimony, Sellers said he tried to warn his bosses at DRD Towing that it was wrong to improperly staff vessels and that the practice could cause problems for the company. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he said he asked Randall Dantin, one of DRD Towing’s owners, when he appointed an unlicensed mariner to the position of captain. Sellers also recalled a separate instance in which an unlicensed deckhand filled in for an apprentice mate.

DRD Towing officials were afraid that the Coast Guard would learn about the company’s shady business practices after the accident, Sellers said. Julie Schmidt, DRD Towing’s office manager and sister of Dantin, allegedly told Sellers to be careful about revealing too much information during any hearings. However, Schmidt did not ask Sellers to refuse to testify, he said.

Schmidt now runs Oak Marine, a New Orleans towing company that Sellers said formed from the ashes of DRD Towing, which closed in August. Several former DRD Towing employees work for Oak Marine, including Gary Daigle, a former DRD Towing port captain who testified on Monday.

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~ by maringouin on Wednesday, February 11, 2009.

One Response to “July 2008 Mississippi River oil spill goes to court – part 2”

  1. This guys a wierdo,i’ve been friends with his girlfriend for a few years…please notify me of trial updates

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