The Eighth Coast Guard District recently completed Operation Big Tow, a three-month long effort designed as a result of a collision between a cargo vessel and a loaded oil barge on the Mississippi River that spilled more than 282,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil into the river. Operation Big Tow was designed to ensure vessel operators were properly licensed for their respective vessel’s size, type and route.
Uninspected towing vessels
An initial investigation into the July 23, 2008 collision that closed nearly 100 miles of river near New Orleans revealed that a crewmember operating the Mel Oliver, an uninspected towing vessel (UTV) pushing the barge was improperly licensed. UTVs are towing vessels 26-feet or longer and must be under the direction of a licensed master.
In November, District Eight launched Operation Big Tow, which had the primary purpose of ensuring UTVs were operated by individuals with the proper licenses and endorsements through spot checks and safety exams.
“The Mel Oliver collision cast doubt over whether UTVs were under the command of properly licensed operators,” said Capt. Verne Gifford, chief of the Eighth Coast Guard District Prevention Division. “Operation Big Tow was necessary to restore confidence in the towing vessel industry.”
Three pronged approach
The Coast Guard used three tactics to verify licensing compliance: examinations of vessels, contacting vessels by radio and mobile phone, and auditing the entire list of a company’s operators. “The desired outcome of the operation was to look into licensing issues needed to help get qualified pilots on the river thus making the river safer,” said Lt. Cmdr. William Daniels, with the Eighth Coast Guard District Waterways Management. In an effort to minimise interference with day-to-day commercial operations, examinations were conducted at locks, where it was possible to get on the vessel while it was waiting to transit through. Therefore, the only vessels delayed were those with operators who had licensing deficiencies.