Planet Earth

published : 2023-10-19

Kentucky towboat owner pleads guilty to federal pollution charge after oil spill in West Virginia river

Towboat sank and polluted Big Sandy River, leading to city's drinking water closure

An aerial view of the Big Sandy River capturing the serene beauty of the waterway, taken with a Nikon D850

The owner of a towboat that sank and spilled oil into a river along the West Virginia-Kentucky border pleaded guilty to a federal pollution charge.

David K. Smith, 55, of Paducah, Kentucky, entered the plea in federal court in Huntington to discharge of refuse into navigable waters.

Smith owned River Marine Enterprises LLC and Western River Assets LLC. His towboat, the Gate City, sank while docked in the Big Sandy River in January 2018, discharging oil and other substances.

David K. Smith, the Kentucky towboat owner, standing outside his office in Paducah, Kentucky, captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The city of Kenova, West Virginia, closed its municipal drinking water intake for three days while regulatory agencies responded to the spill, according to court records.

A November 2017 Coast Guard inspection of the vessel had determined it could harm public health and the environment due to the threat of an oil discharge. Officials said at the time the vessel had the potential to spill 5,000 gallons.

An administrative order required Smith to remove all oil and hazardous materials from the Gate City before Jan. 31, 2018, but Smith admitted he had not complied at the time of the spill, prosecutors said.

Coast Guard officials inspecting the Gate City towboat prior to its sinking in the Big Sandy River, photographed with a Sony A7 III

Smith also said a contractor that was supposed to remove oil from the vessel before it sank could not access it safely due to site conditions.

Smith faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. His companies each face fines up to $200,000.

Sentencing was set for Feb. 26, 2024.