American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) has reached a final settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Louisiana that formally resolves a July 2008 collision and oil spill near New Orleans.
Under the agreement, the company based in Jeffersonville, Ind., will acquire and preserve 649 acres of woodland wildlife habitat and pay more than $2 million in damages as part of the settlement with the federal government and state of Louisiana. ACBL previously paid $21.3 million in connection with the incident involving the towboat Mel Oliver.
“This settlement secures full compensation for the damaged resources, including the permanent preservation of 649 acres of critical wildlife habitat along the Mississippi River just a few miles from downtown New Orleans,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The settlement stems from an incident near New Orleans that happened on July 23, 2008. The ACBL towboat Mel Oliver was pushing the tank barge DM-932 loaded with No. 6 fuel oil upriver when it cut in front of the downbound tanker Tintomara. The larger ship slammed through the barge, which broke apart and sank. It spilled 282,000 gallons of fuel into the river, impacting more than 5,000 acres of shoreline habitat covering almost 100 river miles.
ACBL owned the towboat and barge, but the vessels were operated and crewed by DRD Towing of Harvey, La., at the time of the incident. The investigation and legal proceedings that followed the collision determined an unlicensed apprentice wheelman was helming the towboat during the collision. The captain, Terry Carver, had apparently left the vessel days earlier to iron out problems with his girlfriend.
DRD Towing pleaded guilty to numerous charges, including creating hazardous conditions by assigning employees without proper Coast Guard licenses to operate vessels and paying licensed captains to operate a vessel for 24 hours a day without a relief captain. DRD also pleaded guilty to the illegal negligent discharge of oil.
The owner of DRD Towing and the apprentice wheelman both were sentenced to prison following the incident. Carver received a sentence of 36 months of probation.
Under its agreement with the government, ACBL will spend $3.25 million to buy and preserve the 649-acre tract consisting of hardwood forested wetland, swamp, relic wetlands and open water in upper Plaquemines Parish, downriver from New Orleans. The Woodlands Conservancy, a local nonprofit that currently manages the property for recreational and educational use, will hold title to the property.
ACBL will pay an additional $2.07 million to compensate the state and federal governments for natural resource damage. That money will be used as part of environmental restoration efforts in Louisiana.
ACBL President Mike Ellis said in a recent statement that the company is pleased the almost 14-year legal matter is resolved.
“Although the Mel Oliver collision was a disastrous event for our industry, ACBL has worked diligently and transparently from the beginning with all parties involved to mitigate the damages that occurred due to DRD’s negligence,” Ellis said in a statement. “After many years, we are pleased to see this case finally reach its conclusion.”
ACBL highlighted judgments that it said cleared the company of any fault related to the spill. “It was determined DRD Towing was entirely at fault for the collision and resulting oil spill,” ACBL said in a statement.
Although ACBL was not found at fault, it was required under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to cover costs from DRD Towing that were left unpaid. That led to ACBL’s prior payment of $20 million to the government in 2018. All told, ACBL and its insurers spent more than $75 million cleaning up the spill. •