Towboat in Mississippi spill lacked a qualified pilot, Coast Guard says

A towboat involved in a collision that led to a major oil spill on the Mississippi River lacked a properly licensed pilot to operate the vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The main section of the damaged barge is lifted from the river before being placed on the deck of a salvage barge. Above, the bow section was removed first.  (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The towboat Mel Oliver was pushing a barge carrying 410,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil near New Orleans, La., at about 0130 on July 23 when the barge collided with Tintomara, a 590-foot Liberian-flagged tanker carrying biodiesel and styrene.

The impact nearly split the barge in half. Two of the barge’s three tanks were breached, spilling about 270,000 gallons of fuel oil and forcing the closure of a 100-mile stretch of the river for several days during the cleanup. None of the contents of Tintomara spilled.

The captain of Mel Oliver was onshore at the time of the accident, the Coast Guard said.

“The towboat pushing the barge did not have a properly licensed pilot and there was no one else on the vessel properly documented to guide it,†said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau.

According to the Coast Guard, Tintomara and the New Orleans Vessel Traffic Center tried repeatedly to warn Mel Oliver about the impending collision, but no one could make contact with the towboat.

Mel Oliver and its tow had just emerged from the Harvey Canal Lock and were crossing from the west bank to the east bank of the river on a rainy night after picking up fuel oil from John W. Stone Oil Distributor in Gretna, La. The towboat and its cargo were heading for Memphis, Tenn., when the barge was struck on the port side between tank No. 1 and tank No. 2, breaching both tanks. Tank No. 3 was not breached.

The barge was ripped away from the towboat and floated downstream until it became entangled on a pier of the Crescent City Connection, a bridge spanning the river. Part of the bow remained above water. The rest of the barge, with tank No. 3 intact, sank to the bottom, landing upside down.

The barge, DM932, is owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL) of Jeffersonville, Ind. The towboat is owned by DRD Towing Co. LLC of Harvey, La.

DRD Towing was involved in another serious accident 11 days earlier when the company’s 50-foot tug Ruby E sank in New Orleans, again with a pilot at the helm who did not have the necessary credentials. The firm failed a May safety audit and may face revocation of its membership in the American Waterways Organization, a national trade group. If the company loses its membership it would be faced with serious cuts in revenue, since only AWO members can partner with each other in transportation deals.  

During the environmental response to the July 23 spill, the Coast Guard shut down vessel traffic on a 100-mile stretch of the river between New Orleans and the Head of Passes. The river remained closed for two days, and only a few high-priority crude-oil tankers were allowed to transit the area for a few days afterward.

By July 29, the Coast Guard reported that about 75,000 gallons of an oil/water mixture had been recovered. Approximately 795 responders from four oil-spill teams laid 188,000 feet of boom using 71 work boats, and numerous barges, skimmers and vacuum trucks were used to aid in the cleanup. Water intakes for municipal supplies were closed for 12 to 24 hours until the oil had passed downriver.

Losses for the Port of New Orleans were estimated at $100,000 per day while the river was closed, not including losses to terminal operators, stevedores, tugboat operators and other state and private businesses.

Natchez and other excursion boats were shut down because they could not move from their docks. The cruise ship Fantasy had to dock July 25 at Mobile, Ala., with 2,000 passengers bused to New Orleans. The company picked up 2,000 more passengers the same day at the cruise ship terminal in New Orleans and bused them to Mobile.

The half-dozen pedestrian and car ferries that cross the river several times a day were also affected. There was no service for the first 24 hours after the spill and part-time schedules had to be instituted for the next several days.    

On July 26, the backlog of ships waiting to head upriver stood at 95. Soon after the Coast Guard allowed a “litmus-test ship†to move to an area where the oil on its hull was washed off. The vessel, Overseas New York, was then cleared to move upriver. It was checked for contamination at several locations and was allowed to continue.

Ships were then permitted to move on a priority basis, but only after individual sign-offs by the Coast Guard. Twenty-three ships were allowed to proceed on July 28, and by the next day the backlog was nearly eliminated except for ships having their hulls cleaned.

In early August, the remaining oil was pumped out of the stricken barge and was replaced with water. Another barge with a chain-like cutter then severed DM932. The two pieces were lifted out of the water by a crane barge and placed on two other barges.

“To date, impact on wildlife has been limited to about 100 birds, and we have heard reports of oiled muskrats, beavers and alligators,†Buddy Goatcher of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in late July.

The oil spill was the largest on the Mississippi River since 2000, when a tanker ran over its anchor and discharged 550,000 gallons of crude oil near Port Sulphur, La. The largest discharge of oil products in the river from multiple sources was in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, when more than 6 million gallons spilled.

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the collision.

By Professional Mariner Staff