Towboat captain sentenced in Mississippi River spill

Terry Carver, master of the towboat involved in a collision with a tanker on the Mississippi River in New Orleans that resulted in a major oil spill, was sentenced to three years probation.

On April 13, Carver was sentenced for “creating a hazardous condition” onboard the towboat Mel Oliver in violation of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of the Eastern District of Louisiana announced. Carver had left the vessel three days prior to the accident to drive 13 hours to confront his girlfriend. There were no other properly licensed employees left onboard to operate the Mel Oliver at the time Carver left the towboat.

“My nephew called and said he saw my girlfriend with another guy in my truck,” Carver testified during a U.S. Coast Guard hearing.

On July 23, 2008, three days after Carver left the boat, the towboat Mel Oliver, now with a steersman who was not properly licensed at the controls, pushed the barge DM932 into the path of the 600′ tanker Tintomara. The barge was severed, spilling approximately 282,000 gals. of fuel oil into the river.

No one was hurt in the accident, but the response and cleanup closed 100 miles of the river for several days, employing almost 1,600 personnel from four oil-spill response organizations.

At the time of the accident, the towboat and barge were owned by Jeffersonville, Ind.-based American Commercial Lines, and operated by DRD Towing Inc., Harvey, La.

When U.S. Coast Guard officials went aboard the towboat following the accident, they found apprentice mate John Bavaret at the controls, not Carver. In fact, Carver never returned to the vessel, was not in attendance during Coast Guard hearings that stretched from August 2008 to November 2008, and was not in the hearing room when his attorney pleaded the Fifth Amendment on his behalf.

However, in December 2008, Carver asked Lt. Cmdr. Melissa Harper, who presided over the hearings, if he could finally tell his side of the story. He testified that he did leave the boat on July 20, 2008, and that he had done so on a number of other occasions.

“One of the fundamental tenets of safe navigation is having a properly licensed mariner in charge of the vessel,” Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, Eighth District Coast Guard commander, said in a statement announcing Carver’s sentence. “When this principal is broken, the lives of all mariners and the marine environment are at risk.”

Towboats, such as the Mel Oliver, are uninspected vessels. However, the Coast Guard is currently involved in the long process of creating inspection regulations for these vessels. The process was already underway when the Mel Oliver accident occurred.

DRD Towing was sentenced to two years probation and a $200,000 fine in January 2011 and Randall Dantin, a co-owner of DRD, was sentenced to 21 months in jail and a $50,000 fine for obstruction of justice.

John Bavaret pled guilty to steering the towboat on the night in question without a properly licensed captain present. He is awaiting sentencing.

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