Testimony expected Wednesday in Miss. River spill

Published 5:09 pm Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Only a few witnesses — crew members of a tanker that hit a barge loaded with oil last month — will testify this week in the Coast Guard’s investigation of a wreck that spilled heavy oil along the Mississippi River.

All three are from other countries, and will be heard early “so they may be released and go forth to their native countries,” Lt. Cmdr. Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard investigator in the case, said as she opened the hearing Tuesday.

She said their testimony should take two or three days. After that, the hearing will recess until a date yet to be scheduled, she said.

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After she questions a witness, representatives for the National Transportation Safety Board and the nation of Liberia, where the tanker Tintomara is registered, will question them. Then questioning is open to attorneys for the various parties of interest — the Tintomara and its pilot, American Commercial Lines, which owned the barge and tug Mel Oliver; DRD Towing of Harvey, which operated the tug; Capt. Terry Carver, who was assigned to the tug but not on board, and John Paul Bavaret II, the apprentice steersman who was at the tug’s helm.

Harper ended Tuesday’s session after about 45 minutes so everyone involved could look over hundreds of pages of evidence. “I think it was close to a thousand,” said Randolph J. Waits, who represents DRD Towing.

The Tintomara hit a barge loaded with bunker oil early July 23.

The Coast Guard has said the tanker had no mechanical or staffing problems, but the tug was piloted by an apprentice steersman — essentially, someone with a maritime learner’s permit. Bavaret, is representing himself. All other parties have attorneys.

“I would think he’s entitled to obtain representation from either the public defender’s office in the federal court system or through one of the law clinics with one of the law schools,” said Michael A. McGlone, a New Orleans maritime attorney whose firm is not involved in the hearing. “These types of Coast Guard hearings can be quasi-criminal. They can result in criminal charges.”

However, the law setting up the federal public defender system for people who cannot afford attorneys says nothing about investigations, though it would cover someone who has been arrested, is being held as a material witness or “faces loss of liberty in a case.”

Louisiana’s legal clinics can represent people whose income is less than double the federal poverty level, Bill Quigley, on sabbatical from Loyola University, where he is director of the law clinic, wrote in an e-mail. If Bavaret is single, his annual income would have to be less than $20,800 to qualify.

“I would not think it is a good — for lack of a better term — thing for this gentleman to be representing himself in this proceeding,” McGlone said.

Bavaret does not have a publicly listed telephone number, and Harper said during the hearing that witnesses cannot talk to reporters until after they have testified.

Someone brought before a formal marine casualty board is entitled to an attorney, but has to find one — the Coast Guard doesn’t provide counsel, said Petty Officer Thomas Blue, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Carver hired his own attorney, Waits said. He said he believed both Bavaret and Carver are full-time employees, but DRD was not paying for their attorneys.

“I don’t know what his financial situation is, or why he does or doesn’t have an attorney,” Waits said.

The hearing resumes Wednesday.