Prison for captain 10 years after fatal barge explosion

JUNE 29, 2015 — More than 10 years after a January 19, 2005 barge explosion in which a crew member died, the captain of the tugboat pushing the barge has been sentenced to six months in prison. The family company for which he worked was put on probation and ordered to pay $5.3 million.

The sentences were handed down Friday by U.S. District Judge James Zagel in a Chicago federal court one year after it had found both the captain, Dennis M. Egan, 36, and Egan Marine Corporation guilty of one count of negligent manslaughter of a seaman and one count of negligently discharging oil pollution to a navigable waterway. In addition to being ordered to pay restitution of $5.3 million to cover the cost of the spill, Egan Marine Corporation, was sentenced to three years of supervised release.

The June 9, 2014 convictions of the two defendants followed a 13-day bench trial spread over several months.
 U.S. Department of Justice says that, according to the evidence at trial and court records, on Jan. 19, 2005, a fully-loaded Egan Marine Corp. tank barge, known as the EMC-423, being pushed by the tow boat Lisa E, was transporting approximately 600,000 gallons of clarified slurry oil (CSO) from the ExxonMobil Oil Corp. refinery near Joliet to the Ameropan Oil Corp. facility near the canal and California Avenue in Chicago. CSO is a byproduct of petroleum refining that can also be used as fuel, among other uses.

Egan Marine Corp. employee Dennis Michael Egan was the pilot of the Lisa E and captain of the vessels. As captain, Egan was responsible for the actions of his three-man crew and the safe operation of the vessels. About 4:40 p.m., just after clearing the Cicero Avenue Bridge and heading northeast parallel to the I-55 Stevenson Expressway, a large explosion, originating in one of the EMC-423's four cargo tanks, occurred aboard the barge. As a result, the EMC-423 sank, discharging thousands of gallons of CSO and other oils into the canal.

Immediately after the blast, crewman Alexander Oliva, 29, who had been aboard the barge, was determined to be missing. His body was recovered from the canal near Laramie Avenue on Feb. 4, 2005.

Finding both defendants guilty following trial, Judge Zagel ruled that the explosion occurred when the open flame from a propane fueled torch, which Alex Oliva was using to heat the barge's cargo pump in preparation for offloading, came into contact with ignitable CSO vapors being vented from a storage tank headspace to the deck of the barge within mere inches of the cargo pump.

The use of any open flame on a loaded petroleum barge is a violation of Coast Guard regulations and safe industry practice. The barge did have a lawful onboard heating system, but it was disconnected from the cargo pump, thereby requiring the crew to use an alternative means of heating the cargo pump for offloading.
Judge Zagel concluded that the defendants were negligent because they knew that the crew occasionally used an open flame to heat the cargo pump but nonetheless permitted the crew to engage in the illegal and unsafe practice. As a result, the defendants were found guilty of negligently causing the death of Alex Oliva and negligently violating the Clean Water Act by discharging thousands of gallons of oil into the Canal, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The total cleanup and other costs from the spill exceeded $12 million, more than $5.3 million of which was paid by the National Pollution Funds Center from a federal trust fund used to pay the costs of mitigating oil spill incidents, as well as legitimate damage claims of affected third parties. The fund was established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

In imposing sentence, Judge Zagel remarked that when bad things don't happen for a long period of time, there is a distinct risk that the level of care is lowered and this is the case where the catastrophe occurred."This case provides a tragic example of what happens when a vessel captain, and his employer, violate their special duty of care to their crew and the public by disregarding basic safety requirements," said U.S. Attorney Zachary T. Fardon. "The ultimate tragedy of their crimes is that Alex Oliva would not have lost his life if the defendants valued basic safety higher than expediency."

According to the Chicago Tribune, Egan Marine has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit court against ExxonMobil and an employee, alleging they were negligent in loading the barge with oil contaminated with materials that made it more unstable and explosive than the barge workers expected.

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