Following collision and spill, Coast Guard gets tough on unlicensed operators

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Carlos Babilonia on a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat taking part in Operation Big Tow on the Mississippi. While the machine gun is part of the boat’s equipment, the operation to check mariners’ licenses was not designed as an aggressive boarding action. (Brian Gauvin)

As a result of revelations in the notorious Mel Oliver case, the Coast Guard has begun a series of spot inspections to ensure that towing vessels are crewed by properly licensed mariners.

Operation Big Tow began in November along the Gulf Coast, Mississippi River and Western Rivers system. Coast Guard marine safety personnel are boarding towboats and examining the credentials of each mariner aboard.

In July, the Mississippi River was closed for several days after the chemical tanker Tintomara collided with a barge, resulting in an estimated 280,000-gallon oil spill. The Coast Guard later said the barge’s towing vessel, Mel Oliver, was operated by an apprentice mate instead of a licensed pilot. The apprentice later testified that the captain had left the vessel for two days to deal with a personal problem involving his girlfriend.

DRD Towing, the operator of Mel Oliver, had experienced another maritime casualty just a few days earlier. The company’s towboat Ruby E sank as a result of that incident. That boat also was operated by an apprentice mate, with no licensed master on board, the Coast Guard said.

Apprentice mates may operate a towing vessel only when a licensed master is present.

In September, the Coast Guard issued a safety alert warning the industry to ensure that boats have the proper number of qualified and licensed mariners.

“Failure to properly man a vessel may result in significant penalties and fines, not to mention other, possibly more significant and costly civil litigation,” the Coast Guard’s statement said.

“While the costs associated with the fines and penalties can be very severe, had this (Mel Oliver) incident involved a collision with a small passenger vessel or ferry commonly known to transit in and around New Orleans, this casualty may have had a much more severe outcome: a significant loss of life!”

To follow up the safety alert, Operation Big Tow was announced Nov. 3.

“While the majority of the towing industry operates safely and complies fully with licensing requirements, this comprehensive operation will allow us to identify any companies that may have problems,” said Capt. Verne B. Gifford, chief of prevention for the Coast Guard’s Eighth District.

The New Orleans incidents have prompted an effort at the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center (NMC) to help the industry confirm the license status of its mariners. By the end of January, the NMC hopes to create a Web-based e-verification system for the employers, said Capt. David Stalfort, the NMC’s commanding officer.

“After the Mel Oliver, we had a huge number of towing companies calling to verify credentials,” Stalfort said.

Those inquiries already have snagged job applicants presenting fake credentials, Stalfort said. In one case, a would-be professional mariner attempting to get hired in Chile submitted counterfeit U.S. license documents.

Until the e-verification site is up and running, employers may call 1-888-IASKNMC to check a mariner’s credentials.

By Professional Mariner Staff