Barge Owner Sentenced to Prison for Oil Spill on Columbia River
Owner of Salvage Company was Informed of Oil on Barge and Failed to Act before Salvage; then Ignored Leaks, failing to Report them to Authorities
View of the Davy Crockett barge in January 2011. Credit: Washington Department of Ecology
The Ellensburg, Washington man responsible for a $22 million oil clean up and salvage operation on the Columbia River was sentenced to four months in prison, eight months of home detention, 100 hours of community service and three years of supervised release, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. BRET A. SIMPSON, 53, the owner of Principle Metals, LLC, pleaded guilty in July 2012 to two criminal violations of the Clean Water Act; failing to report a discharge of oil, and unlawfully discharging oil into the Columbia River near Camas, Washington. At sentencing U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle told him, “it has to be known that when you undertake a responsibility that has the potential to ruin an ecosystem you’re going to bear the consequences.”
“This defendant’s singular focus on maximizing his profits, at the expense of even minimal environmental safeguards, cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Mr. Simpson exhibited no regard for the likelihood that his misguided salvage efforts could, and in fact did, lead to an environmental emergency that was only partially averted by a massive federal and state response.”
With his guilty plea SIMPSON admitted that he was informed about oil left on the ‘Davy Crockett’ barge before salvage operations began. However, SIMPSON failed to have the oil removed before workers started cutting up the metal barge. When the first oil spill occurred in early December 2010, SIMPSON failed to notify authorities and failed to take adequate steps to monitor the vessel or protect it from natural forces and further structural damage. Subsequent spills in January 2011 led U.S. Coast Guard investigators to identify the ‘Davy Crockett’ as the source and initiate a federally funded cleanup effort. Ultimately the U.S. Coast Guard and state authorities spent eight months and approximately $22 million to clean up the spill and remove the derelict barge from the river.
“Today Mr. Simpson is being held accountable for his criminal acts,” said Rear Adm. Keith A. Taylor, Commander of the 13th Coast Guard District. “The next step is holding him accountable for the more than $22 million spent from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund during the extensive, Coast Guard led, multi-agency cleanup. We continue to work closely with the Department of Justice on all aspects of this case. The Coast Guard is committed to protecting the maritime environment of the Pacific Northwest and our nation. Actions like Mr. Simpson's will not be tolerated.”
“Paying a serious price for environmental crime is unfortunately not new for Defendant Simpson,” said Tyler Amon, Special Agent-in-Charge for the U.S. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in Seattle. “His negligence degraded the Columbia River, created a hazard to navigation and cost more than $22 million to clean up. His sentencing today should serve as notice to irresponsible vessel owners who doubt our resolve to vigorously pursue and prosecute environmental crimes.”
The M/V Davy Crockett is a former U.S. Navy ship that had been converted to a flat deck barge. SIMPSON’s company planned to cut the barge apart and sell the metal for scrap. SIMPSON assembled a crew to begin dismantling the M/V Davy Crockett at its place of moorage in the Columbia River in October 2010. He made no arrangements to remove the fuel oil and diesel fuel from the vessel before the scrapping operation began. On December 1, 2010, a member of the scrapping crew cut into a structural beam of the barge, and the ship began breaking apart and leaking oil. Neither SIMPSON nor anyone else with Principle Metals LLC notified authorities about the leak. The scrapping operation was halted.
SIMPSON initially addressed the oil release by ceasing all scrapping operations, procuring a boom to limit the release of oil into the Columbia River, and directing an employee to monitor vessel conditions. The employee monitored vessel conditions for approximately one week following the initial release before being relieved of his employment. SIMPSON took no further steps to monitor the ship, or the boom, and took no steps to protect the barge from further structural damage. On January 19, 2011, an accumulation of debris next to the barge forced it to move, and additional oil was released. The Coast Guard responded to the additional movement of the barge, and issued an administrative order for SIMPSON to remove any remaining visible oil from machinery spaces and deck tubes together with other salvage debris from the vessel. SIMPSON complied and authorities believed the barge no longer posed an environmental danger. However on January 27, 2011, additional oil was released from the vessel and state and federal authorities immediately responded in an effort to limit environmental damage.
Detailed timeline of the clean up and material removed from the water is available here: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/spills/incidents/DavyCrockett/DavyCrockett.html.
The case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID), the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney James Oesterle and Special Assistant United States Attorney Lieutenant Commander Marianne Gelakoska of the U.S. Coast Guard. Mr. Oesterle heads the U.S. Attorney’s Office working group on environmental crimes.