Tugboat Mate Convicted

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A Jacksonville, Florida man pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

United States Attorney Michael J. Sullivan; Thomas V. Skinner, Acting Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Enforcement and Compliance Assurance; William Schenkelberg, Special Agent in Charge of the Northeast Region of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service; and Thomas J. Healy, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement, announced today that FRANKLIN ROBERT HILL, age 53, of Jacksonville, Florida, pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert B. Collings to an Information charging him with one misdemeanor count of violating the Clean Water Act and one misdemeanor count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in connection with his role in the April 27, 2003 oil spill in Buzzards Bay.

At today's plea hearing, the prosecutor told the Court that, had the case proceeded to trial, the evidence would have proven that on April 27, 2003, HILL was the mate of the tug boat Evening Tide which was pulling the barge B-120 en route from Philadelphia to Sandwich, Massachusetts. The barge was carrying over 4.1 million gallons of Number 6 fuel oil, a thick, viscous oil used in power plants. All navigational, communications, and steering systems aboard the Evening Tide were in proper working order. Navigational charts identifying all hazards in the area, which are published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were on-board the Evening Tide in paper and electronic form. The weather in Buzzards Bay on the afternoon of April 27, 2003 was bright and clear, with seas running three to five feet.

On the afternoon of April 27, 2003, HILL was at the helm of the Evening Tide and was the person responsible for navigating and piloting the tugboat and barge during these hours. According to the Information, HILL allowed the boat to drift off course and towards the rocks when he left the wheelhouse for an extended period of time to work at the stern of the tugboat. In leaving the wheelhouse unoccupied, HILL violated the Evening Tide's "Watch Standing Orders" which stated that the Mate or Captain shall, "never leave the bridge unattended while underway." HILL did not monitor radio communications. As a result, HILL missed efforts by a vessel traveling behind the tugboat to warn HILL that his boat was heading out of the clearly marked Buzzards Bay Channel.

As a direct result of HILL's negligence, the Evening Tide veered off course as it neared the first green buoy marking the beginning of Buzzards Bay channel. The entrance to the channel is approximately a mile wide. The Evening Tide and the barge traveled to the west of the buoy, striking a rock cropping that was clearly marked on the Evening Tide's nautical charts. The impact from the collision ripped a twelve foot hole in the bottom of the barge, rupturing one of the barge's ten separate tanks, from which approximately 98,000 gallons of oil spilled out. The oil soiled over 90 miles of shoreline in Southeastern Massachusetts and resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of protected birds.

Magistrate Judge Collings scheduled sentencing for September 21, 2005 at 2:30 p.m. HILL faces up to 1 year in prison on the Clean Water Act charge and 6 months in prison on Migratory Bird Treaty Act charge, to be followed by 1 year of supervised release, and a fine.

On November 18, 2004, HILL's former employer, Bouchard Transportation Company ("BTC"), pleaded guilty to an Information charging it with one count of violating the Clean Water Act and one count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. BTC was ordered to pay a fine of $10 million, the largest fine ever in an oil spill case in New England. In her sentencing Order, the Court endorsed the U.S. Attorney's Office recommendation that $7 million of the fine be used for eligible wetlands conservation projects in the Buzzards Bay Watershed area of Southeastern Massachusetts.

The case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Mitchell in Sullivan's Economic Crimes Unit; Peter Kenyon, EPA Senior Criminal Enforcement Attorney; and Commander Steven Stancliff, District Legal Advisor, U.S. Coast Guard.

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