The towboat pilot in charge of a petroleum barge tow that exploded in 2005, resulting in the death of a crewmember, was sentenced to six months in federal prison Friday after being convicted of felony maritime negligence and causing thousands of gallons of oil to pollute the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The corporate barge owner, convicted of the same offenses, was sentenced to three years of supervised release and make restitution in excess of $5.3 million to the National Pollution Funds Center for the monies it paid out as a result of the spill. The defendants, Dennis Michael Egan and Egan Marine Corp. were found guilty in June 2014 following a bench trial.
Egan, 36, of Topeka, Ill., and Lemont-based Egan Marine were each convicted of one count of negligent manslaughter of a seaman and one count of negligently discharging oil pollution to a navigable waterway. The verdict was delivered in an oral ruling from the bench by U.S. District Judge James Zagel in June 2014. In addition to the prison sentence, Judge Zagel also ordered Dennis Egan to one year of supervised release. Judge Zagel has scheduled a hearing for July 1 to rule on restitution amounts to the family of the victim.
According to the evidence at trial and court records, on Jan. 19, 2005, a fully-loaded Egan Marine tank barge, EMC-423, being pushed by the towboat Lisa E, was transporting approximately 600,000 gals. of clarified slurry oil (CSO) from the ExxonMobil refinery near Joliet to the Ameropan Oil Corp. facility near the canal and California Avenue in Chicago. CSO is a byproduct of petroleum refining that can also be used as fuel, among other uses.
Egan Marine employee Dennis Michael Egan was the pilot of the Lisa E and captain of the towboat and tank barge. As captain, Egan was responsible for the actions of his three-man crew and the safe operation of the vessels. About 4:40 p.m., just after clearing the Cicero Avenue Bridge and heading northeast parallel to the I-55 Stevenson Expressway, a large explosion, originating in one of the EMC-423’s four cargo tanks, occurred aboard the barge. As a result, the EMC-423 sank, discharging thousands of gallons of CSO and other oils into the canal. Immediately after the blast, crewman Alexander Oliva, 29, who had been onboard the barge, went missing. His body was recovered from the canal near Laramie Avenue on Feb. 4, 2005.
Finding both defendants guilty following trial, Judge Zagel ruled that the explosion occurred when the open flame from a propane fueled torch, which Alex Oliva was using to heat the barge’s cargo pump in preparation for offloading, came into contact with ignitable CSO vapors being vented from a storage tank headspace to the deck of the barge within mere inches of the cargo pump. The use of any open flame on a loaded petroleum barge is a violation of Coast Guard regulations and safe industry practice. The barge did have a lawful onboard heating system, but it was disconnected from the cargo pump, thereby requiring the crew to use an alternative means of heating the cargo pump for offloading. Judge Zagel concluded that the defendants were negligent because they knew that the crew occasionally used an open flame to heat the cargo pump but nonetheless permitted the crew to engage in the illegal and unsafe practice. As a result, the defendants were found guilty of negligently causing the death of Alex Oliva and negligently violating the Clean Water Act by discharging thousands of gallons of oil into the canal, in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The total cleanup and other costs from the spill exceeded $12 million, more than $5.3 million of which was paid by the National Pollution Funds Center from a federal trust fund used to pay the costs of mitigating oil spill incidents, as well as legitimate damage claims of affected third parties. The fund was established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
In imposing sentence, Judge Zagel remarked that when bad things don’t happen for a long period of time, there is a distinct risk that the level of care is lowered and this is the case where the catastrophe occurred.
“This case provides a tragic example of what happens when a vessel captain, and his employer, violate their special duty of care to their crew and the public by disregarding basic safety requirements,” said U.S. Attorney Zachary T. Fardon. “The ultimate tragedy of their crimes is that Alex Oliva would not have lost his life if the defendants valued basic safety higher than expediency.”
The sentence was announced by Zachary T. Fardon, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Neal R. Marzloff, Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, Central Region in Cleveland; and Justin Oesterreich, Acting Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago.
The government was represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy Chapman and Matthew Hiller and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Crissy Pellegrin, of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Regional Counsel for Region 5 in Chicago.