(CN) – A cargo services provider will face a trial for its role in the explosion of 14,000 barrels of Exxon oil into the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal, but Exxon is off the hook, a federal judge ruled.
Exxon Mobil began selling clarified slurry oil to Clark Oil Trading in 1996, with Egan Marine Corp. delivering the oil from Exxon’s refinery in Joliet, Ill.
Nine years later, Exxon loaded about 14,000 barrels of oil onto an Egan Marine tanker barge heading toward Clark Oil. Cold weather caused the valve on the oil’s storage tank to malfunction, so Exxon transferred the oil to a different tank before loading it onto the tanker barge.
Along the way to Clark Oil, the barge exploded, causing thousands of gallons of oil to spill into the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal near the city’s Cicero Avenue Bridge.
Alexander Oliva, a crew member working on the tanker barge, died in the explosion.
In June 2008, the U.S. government filed suit against Egan Marine. Oliva’s misuse of a propane torch, along with an improperly opened valve on the barge’s standpipe, allegedly caused the oil vapors to ignite and explode.
The government sought more than $1.5 million for cleanup costs, disbursements for claims of third parties and up to $25,000 for each day of cleanup. It also filed criminal charges against Egan Marine in September 2008.
In a motion to dismiss, Egan Marine said Uncle Sam deliberately violated discovery rules. It also moved to strike three of the government’s expert witnesses, arguing that they used improper data to prepare their reports on the explosion.
Finally, Egan Marine filed a third-party complaint against Exxon for contribution, indemnity and maritime damages. The cargo company argued that Exxon contaminated the oil with more than 10,000 gallons of gasoline during the move to the second storage tank, thereby causing the explosion.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber dismissed that complaint against Exxon last week. In the same decision, Leinenweber refused to dismiss the government’s complaint against Egan Marine last week but partially granted the motion to strike government witnesses.
“While EMC argues that the government engaged in deliberate obstruction, its failure to raise this issue during discovery dooms its motion,” Leinenweber, referring to Egan Marine. He added that, “while EMC alleges a litany of discovery violations by the government, not one of these allegations stem from the government’s failure to obey a court order.”
Government experts cannot reference the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Casualty Incident Report because that report is neither admissible as evidence nor subject to discovery, according to the 33-page ruling.
Leinenweber also denied Egan Marine’s claim that Exxon breached the implied warranty of safe cargo and caused the spill, holding that “no evidence exists that the allegedly contaminated CSO [clarified slurry oil] caused the explosion and subsequent oil spill.”
The court rejected the challenge to Exxon’s safety data sheet, disagreeing that it was too generic. Since the data sheet warned Egan Marine of the product’s potential dangers, this “gave EMC sufficient warnings about the dangers of the cargo. From the facts before the court, Exxon’s failure to warn EMC about the alleged contamination was not a contributing cause of the accident.”
Since Egan failed to establish liability, Leinenweber said that Exxon merits summary judgment.