Barge Operator Pleads Guilty To Environmental Charges For Role In 2,000 Gallon East River Oil Spill

Attorney General Spitzer and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Erin Crotty today announced the indictment and guilty plea of Robert Lee Preston, on the charge of recklessly Endangering Public Health Safety or the Environment in the Third Degree, a Class E Felony, in connection with his role in a major oil spill into the East River on March 21, 2002. Preston, who was in charge of a barge that was loading heating oil, was found to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of the spill. He is expected to be sentenced to probation and a $15,000 fine.

"This case demonstrates the state's resolve in protecting the waters surrounding New York City," Spitzer said. "The close cooperation between state and federal law enforcement was crucial and ensures that the defendant will be held accountable for his conduct."

"Protecting the health of New York's waterways and natural resources is of primary importance to the Department of Environmental Conservation," Commissioner Crotty said. "This case should serve as a warning that those who put the health of those resources in jeopardy will be punished. Through the combined effort of state agencies, we are able to provide a safer, cleaner environment for citizens across New York State."

Preston, 43, of Picayune, Mississippi, was the captain of a barge owned by Bouchard Transportation Co., which was docked at the Castle Fuel Oil facility located at 17-10 Steinway Street, near Rikers Island in Queens. In the early morning hours of March 21, Preston was overseeing the loading of No. 6 heating oil onto the barge. As the loading operation progressed, a Castle dockworker discovered heating oil flowing off of the deck of the barge and into the waters below. The DEC and the Coast Guard responded to the scene to investigate the cause of the spill and to direct the cleanup efforts. DEC later estimated that approximately 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of the oil had spilled.

As part of its spill response procedures, Bouchard Transportation conducts drug and alcohol testing of all crewmembers of vessels involved in incidents. When Preston took a Breathalyzer test, he was shown to have a blood alcohol level of .10. He was placed under arrest at the scene by investigators from the DEC's Division of Law Enforcement.

Despite the efforts of the DEC, Coast Guard, Castle personnel and the spill response team, some of the spilled fuel oil traveled over to the Bronx shoreline, contaminating a section in the vicinity of the Throgs Neck Bridge, with the heaviest areas of contamination by Shurz Avenue (Silver Beach) and Emerson Avenue. Bouchard Transportation paid for the clean up operation, which lasted several weeks and cost $1.3 million. In addition, the company paid a $75,000 civil penalty pursuant to a consent order entered with the DEC.

The case was investigated by Investigator John C. Fitzpatrick, and Lieutenant John Mattera, under the supervision of Captain Terrance Revella, of the DEC's Division of Law Enforcement, and was prosecuted by Assistant Attorney General Hugh L. McLean of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau.