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Coast Guard begins hearings on Mississippi River oil spill

[JURIST] The US Coast Guard [official website] on Wednesday resumed its investigatory hearings into a collision between a barge and a tanker [Washington Post report] which caused the spilling of approximately 400,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi River on July 23, resulting in the temporary closure of a 100-mile stretch of the waterway. Three foreign crew members from the Tintomara, the Liberian tanker ship that crashed into a barge loaded with fuel oil, are expected to be among the first witnesses questioned. Formal legal proceedings began in New Orleans on Tuesday, but Lt. Cmdr. Melissa Harper, the Coast Guard officer in charge of the trial-like investigation [Times-Picayune report], adjourned the hearing in order to give the parties one more day to review the voluminous documents. The tug boat pushing the barge was driven by an apprentice pilot, John Paul Bavaret II, who has elected to represent himself. Following Harper's questioning of the witnesses, Bavaret and the other interested parties, including the barge's owner, a staffing company, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) [official website], and the nation of Liberia, will all have a chance to question the crew members. A formal list of witnesses expected to be called during the investigation has not yet been released. KATC has local coverage.

While it is unclear if the Coast Guard will seek criminal charges against any of the crew involved in the Mississippi river spill, earlier this year federal charges were brought against Capt. John Joseph Cota, the California maritime pilot accused in the November 2007 spill of approximately 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil in the San Francisco Bay. Following preliminary Coast Guard and NTSB investigations, Cota was charged with two felony counts of making false statements to the Coast Guard on required annual medical forms, along with misdemeanor environmental violations [JURIST reports] of the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act [texts] due to his allegedly negligent behavior.

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