Texas company pleads guilt to causing 2016 oil spill

Published 8:40 am Thursday, June 17, 2021

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NEW ORLEANS – United States Attorney Duane A. Evans announced that Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company, LLC (“Great Lakes”), a Texas company, pled guilty on June 15, 2021 to violating the Clean Water Act in connection with an oil spill in 2016, and agreed to pay a $1 million fine and additional restitution to be determined by the court.

According to court documents, Great Lakes admitted to negligently causing the discharge of a harmful quantity of oil into a navigable water of the United States, in violation of the Clean Water Act. The spill took place on September 5, 2016, on the edge of Bay Long near the Chenier Ronquille barrier island, which is east of Grand Isle.

In the plea documents, Great Lakes admitted that in its contract with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), Great Lakes was responsible for locating all pipelines in the area of the project and complying with the federal Pipeline Safety Act and the “One Call” system created by the Louisiana Underground Utilities and Facilities Damage Prevention Law. Great Lakes admitted that it violated those two laws by failing to alert pipeline companies about continuing work near their pipelines for several months leading up to the oil spill.

James Tassin, the subcontractor working for Great Lakes who operated the marsh buggy that physically caused the spill, was charged in a separate criminal case, No. 21-cr-8, and he pled guilty as charged on March 18, 2021 and is awaiting sentencing. According to court documents in Tassin’s case, after Great Lakes stopped complying with One Call requirements, a Great Lakes employee instructed Tassin to use his marsh buggy to dig near pipelines, despite that digging not being in NOAA’s approved plans, and without Great Lakes getting approval from any pipeline companies that it was safe to dig. While Tassin was in the area of that work on September 5, 2016, he struck one of the pipelines with his marsh buggy and caused the oil spill.

Tassin admitted that a Great Lakes employee instructed Tassin not to tell anyone that Tassin had been digging near the site of the spill, so Tassin followed that instruction. In Great Lakes’ plea documents, Great Lakes admitted that it supervised Tassin’s work and that Great Lakes’ negligent supervision of Tassin caused the oil spill.

“Safeguarding the environment is one of the highest priorities for the Department of Justice,” said U.S. Attorney Duane A. Evans for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to continue working with its federal partners to investigate and hold entities accountable when they neglect their professional and legal obligations and threaten the environment, which places the public and our ecosystem in Southeastern Louisiana at risk.”

“The defendant in this case recklessly violated regulations designed to protect the environment and then tried to hide its actions,” said Christopher Brooks, Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s Criminal Enforcement Program in Louisiana. “Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that we will hold violators responsible for breaking our environmental laws.”

“Failure to adhere to laws and regulations intended to protect our Nation’s natural resources can have serious consequences both for the environment and the integrity of the pipeline transportation system, as was the case in this instance,” said Todd Damiani, Special Agent-in-Charge, Southern Region, Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. “We echo the commitment expressed by our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners to ensuring that those who violate these laws and regulations are held accountable.”

“The Department of Commerce OIG is dedicated to working with our partners to curb fraud, waste and abuse, especially when projects receiving NOAA funding result in environmental hazards. We greatly appreciate the cooperative efforts of the United States Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement counterparts in ensuring justice is served in this matter,” said Duane Townsend, Special Agent in Charge, U.S Department of Commerce, Office of Inspector General.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Great Lakes agreed to pay a fine of $1 million. Great Lakes also agreed to deposit $2 million with the court in an advance of a future hearing to determine the final amount of restitution to any victims. U.S. District Court Judge Greg G. Guidry will set a sentencing hearing at a later date.

The case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, and the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas D. Moses is in charge of the prosecution.