Settlement finally agreed in 2008 tanker-tug collision

Indiana, USA-based American Commercial Barge Line has agreed to pay $6.5m and buy land for preservation as part of a proposed settlement with the US Attorney’s Office as compensation for the damage caused by a 2008 collision on the Mississippi River.

The US and Louisiana concurrently filed a civil complaint in the Eastern District of Louisiana with a proposed consent decree, which could bring to a close a long-running case.

In July 2008 tug Mel Oliver, which was pushing a barge upriver, veered directly into the path of 46,700 dwt tanker Tintomara, a 600ft Liberia-registered ocean going vessel that was sailing downriver.

The vessels collided, causing the barge to split in to and discharge 6,734 barrels of No 6 fuel oil into the Mississippi River, upriver of New Orleans. The river was closed for six days from July 23rd north of New Orleans to Southwest Pass Sea Buoy. American Commercial, the US Coast Guard, and Louisiana State were involved in wide-ranging response and cleanup efforts.

The resulting oil spill spread more than 100 miles downriver and covered more than 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.

Had that been the end of the matter the collision might have made the local news and the trade press, but national media became interested when it was revealed in court papers that the captain of the tug had left the vessel to visit a girlfriend, leaving the vessel under the command of an under-licensed junior. When the vessel made the improper navigation causing the accident, there was no-one sufficiently licensed on board. While the captain was sentenced to three years’ probation and lost his licence, one of the co-owners of the company at the time, DRD Towing, went to jail on charges of obstructing justice. The junior employee, who had been navigating the vessel for three days, pled guilty to operating the vessel without a master’s licence.

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.

Under the proposed consent decree, American Commercial will acquire (for an estimated $3.25m) and preserve 649 acres of woodland habitat near the Mississippi River in upper Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. The Woodlands Conservancy, a local not-for-profit organization 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 $2.07m to compensate for natural resource damages from the spill. The federal and state trustees will jointly use the cash to perform projects to restore or ameliorate the impacts to aquatic life, birds, river batture (alluvial land between the low-tide of the Mississippi and the levee around New Orleans), wetlands, marshes, and recreational uses along the Mississippi River. American Commercial has paid $1.32m to reimburse the federal and state trustees for their past damage assessment and restoration planning costs, as required under OPA and OSPRA.

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

Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said that the settlement secured “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,” adding that “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 $20m to reimburse the US for OPA removal costs and damages.