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Drug and Alcohol Test Results Reported in Mississippi River Oil Spill

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Drug and alcohol tests reveal that the pilot of the tugboat involved in the Mississippi River oil spill was not under-the-influence at the time of the accident, but one of the vessel’s deckhands did test positive for drugs.  Tests on the crew of the other ship involved in the oil spill, the  chemical tanker Tintomara, were all negative.

The tugboat – the Mel Oliver – was being staffed by a crew provided by DRD Towing.  While John Bavaret,  the pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision,  had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the spill, he was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat. Bavaret had  an apprentice mates license, which only allowed him to operate the tugboat under the supervision of a licensed master, who was not onboard the Mel Oliver at time of the accident.

The barge and tugboat involved in the accident were owned by American Commercial Lines, which according to the Times-Picayune, has had problems in the past.  Between 2000 and 2008, American Commercial Lines was managing owner of equipment involved in incidents in which eight people died or went missing.  With the exception of a 2001 accident involving Brown Water Towing, no other company has had a higher toll.

Since the Mississippi River oil spill occurred, questions have also been raised about DRD’s safety record. The Times-Picayune is also reporting that four years ago, staff from DRD Towing was also operating the tugboat Mr. Craig, which lost control of a barge and punched the Eagle Memphis, causing 2,100 gallons of crude oil to sill from the into the Mississippi near Algiers Point.

It turns out the that pilot of another DRD tugboat, the Ruby E., also had only an apprentice mates license when that vessel sank on July 18, only a few miles from last weeks spill.  It is also known that DRD had 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.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on July 23 when the Tintomara and the barge -carrying 419,000 gallons of oil – being towed by the Mel Oliver collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi. The busy river channel was closed for six days to allow for cleanup of the spill.

According to the Times-Picayune, the Coast Guard provided the information on the drug and alcohol testing to the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.  The subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing today focusing on ways to strengthen enforcement efforts aimed at making sure qualified personnel are operating tugboats.

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