Hearing Examines Wreck That Caused New Orleans Oil Spill

August 13, 2008

Storms in New Orleans halted work to clean up oil spilled along the Mississippi River as the Coast Guard prepared Aug. 11 for a hearing about who is to blame for the wreck that caused the spill in late July.

Officials wouldn’t release a witness list for the Aug. 12 hearing about the collision of the 600-foot tanker Tintomara with a barge loaded with tar-like fuel oil on July 23.

But a recent news release identified “parties of interest”: The Tintomara and its pilot; the tug Mel Oliver and its steersman and captain; DRD Towing of Harvey, for which the tugboat’s operators worked; and American Commercial Lines of Jeffersonville, Ind., which owned the barge.

One of the barge’s three tanks apparently had remained intact. A cargo surveyor certified that 136,000 gallons of pure oil were pumped out of the barge before it was hauled out of the river in two chunks Aug. 9 and 10, Coast Guard Petty Officer Larry Chambers said.

That’s about one-third of the entire cargo of 419,000 gallons.

In addition, Chambers said, skimmer boats have removed 165,000 gallons of oily water from the river, and shore crews have hauled off about 7,000 cubic yards of oily debris – enough to fill 175 industrial-sized trash bins.

Now that the barge is out of the river, Coast Guard officials said they hoped to clear reopening of the Canal Street Ferry. It stayed closed when the area’s other ferries resumed operating because its landing was used to stage cleanup supplies and workers.

“Oh, really!” said Rosalind Cook, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, which runs the city’s bus system as well as the ferry. “We hadn’t heard anything.”

The city just started a bus shuttle for people who usually take the ferry. “We’re still of course running that shuttle,” she said.

Although officials had hoped to clear the ferry Aug. 12, bad weather delayed that, too, Chambers said.

The wreck occurred after the half-loaded tanker came out of the tight turn at Algiers Point and was set for the Mississippi River’s looser curve along New Orleans. It was about 1:30 a.m. Then radar showed danger: a blip heading directly into its path.

The blip was the Mel Oliver, pushing a 200-foot-long barge. The Coast Guard traffic controller warned, “Mel Oliver, come in cap, you’re crossing the bottom of a ship coming at you.”

The barge weighed 798 tons. But the tanker was 14 times heavier, 11,500 tons, even before it was loaded with another 20,250 tons or so of cargo – 1.3 million gallons of styrene and 4.2 million gallons of biodiesel.

Its pilot and the Coast Guard traffic controller called, more and more desperately, over the radio. The tug’s radio remained silent. The tanker’s horn bellowed.

“This ain’t good, man,” the tanker’s pilot said. Then: “We just took his tow. The barge is right in front of us and we’re running it over.”

The Coast Guard has said that the tug’s captain wasn’t on board. The Mel Oliver was in charge of an apprentice steersman – the maritime equivalent of a driver with a learner’s permit, allowed at the wheel only with a licensed driver to supervise.

Less than two weeks earlier, another tug operated by DRD Towing had been in a wreck while an apprentice mate was in charge.

The crash broke open two of the American Commercial Lines barge’s three tanks, spreading tar-like fuel oil up and down the riverbank.

The river was closed for six days, and ships must still move as slowly as safely possible along most of the stretch from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, so their wakes don’t disrupt the continuing cleanup.

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