La. towboat company faces criminal charges in collision with tanker

The company operating the towing vessel Mel Oliver faces criminal charges of not crewing the pushboat with enough licensed mariners when it was involved in a collision and major oil spill near New Orleans in 2008.

Towing vessels hold up a barge that split into two in the collision between a pushboat and its barge and a tanker in the Mississippi. Over 280,000 gallons of oil spilled from the barge.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Chris Lippert)

Federal prosecutors accuse DRD Towing of violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act and the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Coast Guard has said Mel Oliver wasn’t operated by a Coast Guard-licensed pilot when its fuel barge collided with a 600-foot tanker on July 23, 2008.

A co-owner of DRD Towing, which is based in Harvey, La., was charged separately with obstruction of justice. Randall Dantin, 46, is accused of intentionally destroying payroll records during the Coast Guard casualty investigation.

An estimated 282,686 gallons of fuel oil spilled from Mel Oliver‘s barge into the Mississippi River after the tow turned into the path of the Liberian-flagged tanker Tintomara, the Coast Guard has said. The river was closed for two days.

Coast Guard investigative hearings revealed that an apprentice mate was operating Mel Oliver while the captain was ashore visiting his girlfriend.

Jim Letten, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Louisiana, filed the felony charges in July.

The prosecutors said DRD Towing violated federal law “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.”

DRD Towing also is accused of “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 that would not allow for the safe operation of the vessel.”

The company also was charged with the illegal negligent discharge of oil.

The obstruction charge against Dantin stems from investigators’ efforts to confirm whether the crews had been working too many hours. Dantin, of Marrero, La., allegedly concealed documentation from a laptop computer.

Dantin “did corruptly obstruct and impede the due and proper administration of the law … by intentionally causing the deletion of DRD Towing •electronic payroll records’ (that he knew) were material to the Coast Guard hearing,” prosecutors said.

If convicted, Dantin could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

DRD Towing and Dantin both pleaded not guilty to the charges July 15, 2010. The company’s attorney, David Courcelle, didn’t return a phone call from Professional Mariner. Dantin and his attorney, Bob Habens, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Federal regulations require round-the-clock boats to carry relief crews. The two sets of mariners usually alternate six hours on, six hours off. DRD Towing is accused of violating this rule, but the prosecutors didn’t specify how many incidents they believe occurred.

The U.S. Attorney’s charges state that DRD Towing violated the rules “by requiring operators to work hours far beyond safe operating limits which far exceed the hours set forth in Title 46 … which prohibited operators from working more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period.”

If convicted, the company could face $700,000 or more in fines.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff