Becnel files first oil spill lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 25, 2008


Editor and Publisher

NEW ORLEANS – When a barge with almost 500,000 gallons of heavy crude oil collided with a tanker on the Mississippi River early Wednesday, most attentions were immediately turned to the expected damage to the environment that is now underway for over 100 miles  down the river.

But for St. John attorney Danny Becnel Jr., the accident was immediately seen as a catastrophic hit to the fragile New Orleans tourism business, which is trying to bounce back from Hurricane Katrina.

“This will be a gigantic loss for the city of New Orleans, and all the people who are trying to make a living in the tourism business,” he told L’Observateur on a phone call from Puerto Rico.

Becnel, well-known nationally for heading high profile class action suits, was true to his reputation on Thursday, filing the first lawsuit in United States Eastern District Court as he again led the way for what is expected to be one of the biggest class action suits he has handled.

Becnel pointed to various reasons that the oil spill could be a huge economic hit for New Orleans, and the people who work there.

“There are so many ways this is going to affect the economy,” he said. “Look at the tourism business just to begin with. New Orleans is still struggling right now trying to get people to come back here for vacations, and things are especially slow in the summer. But after this, who will want to go eat in the French Quarter?”

The accident occurred early Wednesday when a 600-foot Liberian tanker, the Tintomara, collided with a 61-foot barge being pulled by the tugboat Mel Oliver.

The barge split in half and began to release the heavy crude oil just upriver from the Crescent City Connection bridge, but by Friday morning, the oil had been sighted over 100 miles down river.

Coast Guard investigators have revealed that the entire crew operating the Mel Oliver tugboat had no licensed crew members, and the tugboat pilot had only an apprentice mate’s license instead of the required master’s license.

Becnel filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Stephen Marshall Gabarick, a New Orleans cab driver, and Bernard Attridge, who is a musician in the French Quarter.

“These two guys are out of work now, and they represent thousands of people who won’t be able to work because of this,” Becnel said.

The Coast Guard shut down the river to all traffic, stalling approximately 60 ships, which Becnel said was yet another economic disaster.

“All of these ships are carrying cargo somewhere, like maybe St. Louis, and now they have to sit for perhaps days before they can get through. That is costing millions of dollars when you consider the endless ways this will affect people,” the Reserve attorney said.

Becnel said that by Thursday he was already getting numerous calls and Internet requests to be a party to the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit will be worth hundreds of millions when you consider all the ways this oil spill will affect people,” he added.

The lawsuit was filed against Laurin Maritime Inc., the manager/operator of the Tintomara; Whitefin Shipping Co. Limited, the owner of the Tintomara; D.R.D. Towing Group, a Harvey company which is the owner/operator of the Mel Oliver; American Commercial Lines, the owner/operator of the barge; and the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, the responsible party for river pilots who Becnel claimed in the suit “provided a yet unidentified pilot who was in command of the Tintomara at the time of the collision.”

Besides the economic affects Becnel already referred to, he noted that several major tourist cruise ships were scheduled to come to New Orleans in the coming days, but now are being diverted.

“This means that people who had plane tickets for New Orleans have to get them switched to Biloxi, or wherever those cruise ships have to dock,” he remarked. “Not to mention the fact a lot of people won’t even want to take their trips now if they have to make all these changes. There are just so many ways this accident is going to affect the economy in New Orleans.”

The lawsuit also claimed that as a result of prevailing winds, toxic gases from the oil spread from the site of the collision to the French Quarter, and to the Uptown area of New Orleans.

“I had a psychiatrist I knew from New Orleans who called me already and said he was getting sick from the fumes in New Orleans,” Becnel said.

A host of communities from New Orleans downriver were also affected since they draw their water from the Mississippi River. Water intakes from Algiers, Gretna, St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish all had to be closed to prevent contamination of their drinking water, and residents were asked to conserve water.

Coast Guard estimates were that the river could be closed to shipping traffic for several days, and the cleanup of the oil would certainly take several weeks at the least.

Over 150 industry workers, over 200 Coast guard personnel and workers from various agencies, all came to the area to help with the cleanup. The oil was to be skimmed and sucked into vacuum trucks, then put in temporary storage tanks.

Coast Guard Capt. Lincoln Stroh, the port captain in New Orleans, said the oil, widely used as marine fuel, is heavier than diesel, but lighter than crude.