Guilty plea in Big Sandy River towboat spill case

Written by Marine Log Staff
Guilty plea in pollution case

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia reports that David K. Smith, 55, of Paducah, Kentucky, River Marine Enterprises, LLC, and Western River Assets, LLC, pleaded guilty October 17 to discharge of refuse into navigable waters. According to court documents and statements made in court, Western River Assets owned a towboat, the Gate City, that docked along the West Virginia shore of the Big Sandy River from at least 2010 until January 2018. River Marine Enterprises operated the Gate City during this time. Smith was the sole owner and officer of both River Marine Enterprises and Western River Assets, and was responsible for the operation of both companies.

On or about January 10, 2018, the Gate City sank while docked, discharging oil and other substances into the Big Sandy River. The oil left a sheen on the river and oily deposits beneath the surface. As a direct result of the Gate City’s sinking and oil spill, the City of Kenova, West Virginia, closed its municipal drinking water intake for three days and various regulatory agencies took actions and expended resources to respond to the spill.

Smith admitted that on December 5, 2017, the United States Coast Guard issued an administrative order that said in part that the Gate City presented an “imminent and substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the environment because of a threatened discharge of oil from the vessel.” The Coast Guard made that determination as the result of an inspection of the Gate City in or about November 2017.

The administrative order required Smith to remove all oil and hazardous materials from the Gate City prior to January 31, 2018. Smith admitted that at the time of the January 2018 sinking and spill, he had yet to comply with the administrative order. Smith further admitted that River Marine Enterprises had contracted with a qualified business to remove oil from the Gate City, but that the contractor was not able to access the Gate City safely to remove the oil prior to January 10, 2018 because of site conditions.

Smith, River Marine Enterprises and Western River Assets are scheduled to be sentenced on February 26, 2024. Smith faces at least 30 days and not more than one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $100,000 fine. River Marine Enterprises and Western River Assets each face fines of $200,000 and five years of federal probation.

Making the announcement, U.S. Attorney Will Thompson commended the investigative work of the United States Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA CID).

Thompson also commended the U.S. Coast Guard, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia National Guard and other responders for their efforts to contain and clean up the oil spill (which were the subject of wide local media coverage at the time).

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