Company in Mississippi collision and spill pleads guilty to using unqualified personnel

A Louisiana towing company and one of its owners have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the 2008 collision involving the towboat Mel Oliver.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said DRD Towing Co. crewed the towboat with unqualified personnel and scheduled officers to remain on watch for too many hours. Co-owner Randall Dantin was charged with falsifying employment records in an attempt to cover up the violations.

DRD Towing, based in Harvey, La., pleaded guilty in September 2010 to a felony violation of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. The company also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Clean Water Act violation.

Dantin, 46, of Marrero, La., pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. He faces a potential maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Three miles below the point of collision on the day of the accident, the river showed evidence of the almost 300,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil that spilled from Mel Oliver’s barge. (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

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

The charges result from the investigation into Mel Oliver‘s collision with the 600-foot tanker Tintomara in the Mississippi River near New Orleans on July 23, 2008. Investigators said the tow steered into the path of Tintomara. About 282,686 gallons of fuel oil spilled from the tank barge that Mel Oliver was pushing. The investigation revealed that an apprentice mate was piloting the towboat.

In its guilty plea, DRD Towing admitted that it created a hazard by “assigning employees without proper Coast Guard licenses to operate certain vessels thereby causing these vessels to operate … with manning levels below those determined by the Coast Guard to be necessary for safe navigation.”

The company also admitted to “paying licensed captains to operate a vessel for 24 hours a day without a relief captain, knowing that the Coast Guard viewed the use of over-fatigued mariners operating tugboats and barges to be a hazardous condition.”

Coast Guard regulations prohibit licensed vessel operators from working more than 12 hours in a 24-hour day.

A Coast Guard patrol boat and three towboats keep watch over Mel Oliver’s partially sunken tank barge.

Dantin admitted to “causing the deletion of •electronic payroll sheets’ from a DRD Towing laptop computer which were material to the Coast Guard hearing convened to investigate the collision.”

On the felony charge, the company faces a maximum fine of $500,000 or double the gain or loss resulting from the criminal offense, whichever is greater. Sentencing for the company and Dantin has been postponed until Jan. 19, said Kathy English, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

“This case also demonstrates the extraordinary damage to our environment which can occur when maritime companies and individuals fail to meet basic standards through shortcuts and simple greed,” U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said.

Defense attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff