Last Day Of GNOBFA Seminar Focuses On Coast Guard, Company Roles Following Pollution Event

Day three of this year’s Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association (GNOBFA) River & Marine Industry Seminar tackled a common, yet complicated and potentially costly, scenario for towboat operators and emergency responders alike: an incident involving a towboat that results in a pollution event in a waterway.

The entire last session of the annual event focused on a hypothetical scenario involving a towboat, the “mv. Savoie,” pushing a 30,000-barrel tank barge, the “Karl G,” on the Lower Mississippi River in the New Orleans harbor. The towboat had just discharged 1,500 metric tons of VLSFO (very low sulfur fuel oil) to a vessel at Nine Mile Anchorage and was approaching a terminal in Chalmette, La., just below New Orleans, to load VLSFO for its next bunker job. In the scenario, the barge was currently loaded with 700 metric tons of VLSFO and 200 metric tons of ULSD (ultra-low-sulfur diesel).

As the vessel approached the Chalmette terminal, the captain spied another vessel at the dock, so he opted to continue just upriver and push into the bank on the opposite side of the river. Once there, the crew proceeded to top off the tank barge’s engine, then transfer about 8,000 gallons of diesel from the barge to the towboat’s main engines.

“A few minutes into the fueling, Capt. Tommy noticed a sheen on the starboard side of the [barge],” read Marc Hebert, who moderated the session. “He quickly stepped outside of the wheelhouse and saw ULSD pouring from the starboard fuel tank head onto the deck of the Savoie and over the side of the vessel.”

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In the hypothetical scenario, the captain sounded the general alarm, which startled the tankerman on duty, who subsequently injured himself. Unbeknownst to both the captain and tankerman, the deckhand on duty also suffered a heart attack. Amongst all this, the flow of fuel was shut off, and the fuel on the deck of the Savoie was soaked up, but the estimated 20 to 30 gallons of fuel that spilled into the river continued to be carried downstream, toward a fleet and beyond.

Also part of the hypothetical scenario, when the captain pushed into the bank, the barge struck a submerged piling, which punctured one of its tanks. Further complicating that issue, the captain had to move the towboat and barge to the nearby fleet, so that the company’s OSRO (oil spill removal organization), the Coast Guard and emergency responders could access the vessel. And around the same time, there was an unrelated spill of biodiesel from the nearby terminal in Chalmette.

Panelists discussing how to handle pollution claims, the resulting U.S. Coast Guard investigation and the immediate response included Capt. Jason Neubauer, chief of the Coast Guard’s Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis; Capt. Gregory Callaghan, deputy sector commander for Coast Guard Sector New Orleans; Tom Marian, general counsel and chief administrative officer for Buffalo Marine Service; Rebecca Hamra, president and regional claims director for Standard Club Management (Americas) Inc.; Ben Benson, president and senior pollution adjuster and surveyor for Best Inc.; and Keith Jarrett, a defense attorney with Liskow & Lewis in New Orleans.

Marian spent some time describing what the likely thought and action process would be for the captain, who admittedly in the hypothetical situation, would have a lot running through his head.

“The captain is going to call operations, and he’s going to call operations because he’s not in a position to make a whole bunch of additional phone calls,” Marian said. “He’s focused on first aid to the tankerman.”

The operations manager, Marian said, would likely confirm pertinent details about the incident and, subsequently, notify the company’s QI, or individual qualified, to oversee the spill response plan and who would be available to emergency responders 24 hours a day, and notify the EPA’s National Response Center. Marian said that order of operation just makes practical sense due to everything  that the captain is having to handle.

“The captain only has so much bandwidth, because he has to safely navigate, deal with the injury, and get to some place where you can respond to the injury,” he said.

In any situation where the Coast Guard has to be notified, panelists  agreed, there’s an anxiety relative to culpability  for the spill. However, Callaghan stated that, in the immediate response especially, his team isn’t concerned  with conducting an investigation.

“If the injury is in the initial report to us, that will be our primary concern,” he said. “Our No. 1 top priority will be making contact with the master of that vessel and seeing if the company and the vessel needs any assistance in coordinating getting EMS on scene and getting the injured personnel off of the vessel.”

Of course, with an injury and report of pollution, an investigation will be forthcoming, Callaghan said, but that investigation won’t be the Coast Guard’s first task. And even then, the Coast Guard is a “fact-finding organization,” Callaghan said.

“Our marine investigators are casualty investigators,” he said. “They’re not criminal investigators.”

Neubauer and Callaghan detailed what the interactions between the Coast Guard’s Incident Command Center, the Federal On-Scene Coordinators, the QI and marine pollution surveyor should look like in order to ensure proper collaboration of response efforts and the deployment of resources. Doing so will help prevent the response effort from being federalized, while also ensuring a successful cleanup effort.

Hamra, speaking from an insurer’s point of view, emphasized the importance of communicating as much as possible about the situation with the company’s insurance provider.

“Because the last thing I want is my CEO to  find out about the incident via TradeWinds and not via me,” she said.

Hamra noted that most brown-water operators carry insurance for their crew members, a fact that isn’t always the case for crews on international ships. Going beyond that, Jarrett recommended that companies, in similar situations, provide counsel for their crew members. He said he would also consider advising crew members not to conduct an interview with Coast Guard investigators without an attorney present.

There’s also the cost component of the response. Benson and Hebert, along with Hamra, led the discussion on how to best keep records for cost accounting in order for the Responsible Party (RP) to recover costs from its insurer and also, if possible, file a claim against the Coast Guard’s National Pollution Fund Center. Doing so, Jarret said, is possible in certain circumstances and if the RP can limit its liability under the Oil Pollution Act.

In addition to all this, there’s the oil spill component of the scenario, the fines or criminal exposure related to it, and the need to differentiate between diesel from the barge and diesel released at the terminal. With that in mind, Benson emphasized the importance of establishing a chain of custody and official methodology with regard to the collection of samples and other evidence. For that task, Benson suggested hiring a certified third-party pollution response surveyor and the use of an EPA-certified testing lab.

“A Coke bottle won’t do,” he said.

For more information on GNOBFA’s 2023 seminar or the dates for next year’s 40th annual seminar, visit