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Hearing on Oil Spill Starts Today

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A hearing is scheduled to start today into the Mississippi River oil spill. It is hoped that testimony taken at the proceeding will finally allow the Coast Guard to assign blame for the disaster. American Commercial Lines, the owner of the barge that was carrying the fuel oil that spilled into the river, has taken responsibility for the clean-up of the oil spill, but not the collision that caused it. Because American Commercial Lines denies responsibility for the collision, the company has said that it plans to seek protection from oil spill lawsuits that name it as a defendant.

Though the Coast Guard, which is conducting the hearing, has not issued an official witness list, reports earlier this month indicated that both the pilot of the tanker and the captain and steersman of the tugboat involved in the oil spill were “parties of interest”, and it is widely expected that they will be among those to testify.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred when a 600-foot tanker- the Tintamora – and a barge loaded with 419,000 gallons fuel collided. The spill occurred about 1:30 a.m. central time July 23 near the Crescent City Connection, a pair of New Orleans bridges. The barge split in half, spilling much of the tar-like oil it was carrying into the river. At the time, the American Commercial Lines barge was being towed by the tugboat Mel Oliver, owned and operated by DRD Towing of Harvey, Louisiana.

Since the accident, questions have been raised about DRD’s safety record. According to radio transmissions released by the Coast Guard, it is apparent that the Mel Oliver received repeated warnings from both Coast Guard personnel and the pilot of the Tintamora to get out of the way in the minutes leading up to the crash. Unfortunately, no one on the Mel Oliver ever responded to the warnings.

According to the Coast Guard, the pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat. The pilot had only an apprentice mates license. The captain was not aboard the tugboat at the time of the collision. DRD had also failed a safety audit in May, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Organization, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

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