Indiana-based American Commercial Barge Line has agreed to pay $6.5 million and acquire land for preservation as part of a proposed settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in compensation for damages caused by a 2008 collision on the Mississippi River. The United States and Louisiana concurrently filed a civil complaint in the Eastern District of Louisiana with a proposed consent decree to bring a close to the long-running case.

In July of 2008, the tug Mel Oliver, which was pushing a barge upriver, veered directly in front of the MV Tintomara, a 46,700 dwt ocean-going 600-foot tanker registered in Liberia that was ship sailing downriver. The vessels collided causing the barge to split into and discharge approximately 6,734 barrels (282,828 gallons) of No. 6 fuel oil into the Mississippi River upriver of New Orleans. The river was closed from north of New Orleans to Southwest Pass Sea Buoy from July 23 until July 29, 2008. American Commercial, the Coast Guard, and the State were involved in extensive response and cleanup efforts.

The case became a sensation a decade ago when it came out in court papers that the captain of the tug, Terry Carver, age 40, had left the vessel to visit a girlfriend leaving the vessel under the command of an under licensed junior. No one with a sufficient license was aboard the vessel when it made the improper navigation causing the accident. Carver was sentenced to three years probation and lost his license. One of the co-owners of the company at the time, DRD Towing, went to jail on charges of obstructing justice while the junior employee who had been navigating the vessel for three days pled guilty to operating the vessel without a master’s license.

The oil spill covered more than 100 miles and closed the Mississippi for six days (US Coast Guard)

The new complaint seeks damages and costs under Oil Pollution Act and the Louisiana Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act for injuries to natural resources resulting from the 2008 accident. The resulting oil spill spread more than 100 miles downriver and covered over 5,000 acres of shoreline habitat causing significant impact and injuries to aquatic habitats within the Mississippi River and along its shoreline, as well as to birds and other wildlife. 

Under the proposed consent decree, American Commercial will acquire (at an estimated purchase price of $3.25 million) and preserve 649 acres of woodland habitat, consisting of hardwood forested wetland, swamp, relic wetlands, and canals, near the Mississippi River in upper Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. The Woodlands Conservancy, a local nonprofit that currently manages the property for recreational and educational use, will hold title to the property and a conservation servitude will forever limit the use of the Woodlands Parcel to passive recreation, thereby protecting and preserving the ecological benefits of the property.

American Commercial will also pay $2.07 million to compensate for natural resource damages from the spill. The federal and state trustees will jointly use the cash payment to perform projects to restore or ameliorate the impacts to aquatic life, birds, river batture, wetlands, marshes, and recreational uses along the Mississippi River. American Commercial has paid $1.32 million to reimburse the federal and state trustees for their past damage assessment and restoration planning costs, as required under OPA and OSPRA.

Oil on the river spread past New Orleans (US Coast Guard)

“This settlement secures full compensation for the damaged resources, including the permanent preservation of 649 acres of critical wildlife habitat along the Mississippi River just a few miles from downtown New Orleans,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The restoration projects funded by this settlement will restore wildlife and wetlands, and enhance recreational opportunities for Louisiana’s residents and visitors.”  

In an earlier related OPA enforcement action filed in 2011, the Department of Justice secured a settlement with American Commercial for $20 million to reimburse the United States for OPA removal costs and damages.

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court review and approval. 

Source: The Maritime Executive