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Why a DMR boat sank and cost taxpayers $485,000

The Conservationist undergoes repairs at Bay Marine Works in Biloxi in September.
The Conservationist undergoes repairs at Bay Marine Works in Biloxi in September. jphampton@sunherald.com

One of the boats the Department of Marine Resources will have on display Saturday at Point Cadet in Biloxi just got out of rehab. And it was an expensive stay.

According to records obtained by the Sun Herald through the Open Records Act, the oyster boat Conservationist underwent almost $500,000 in repairs after it capsized and sank in 2014.

In a contract with Bay Marine Works in Biloxi, the DMR agreed to pay $407,000 for a laundry list of repairs, including sandblasting and repainting the boat’s exterior and the inside of the cabin, installing an air conditioning system, installing the engine, wiring all equipment and installing hydraulics. That contract did not include a new engine and generator for the boat, which the DMR bought in the 1980s.

The DMR, in a separate contract, agreed to pay $78,136 to Johnson Diesel for a new engine and generator, bringing the total cost of repairs to $485,136. It appears most of the money came from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which shares money collected by the federal government from oil leases with the states adjacent to the offshore fields. The rest came from the Bonnet Carre Spillway Disaster Grant.

The state received $11 million in federal money after the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana in 2011 flooded Mississippi’s oyster reefs with freshwater, killing virtually all the oysters. The spillway is about 12 miles west of New Orleans.

The Conservationist was ferrying oysters from polluted reefs near Pascagoula to the decimated reefs in west Harrison County, when a rubber hose broke and flooded the center bilge, causing the boat to capsize, according to a report by DMR Patrol officer who investigated the accident.

“There is no evidence that supports the manner in which the boat was piloted contributed to the accident,” investigator William Freeman Jr. wrote in his Nov. 4, 2014 report. “This conclusion is based on (boat Capt. Michael) Brochard’s direct training with the Conservationist. However, Brochard taking command of his crew and executing a safe and successful abandoning of the sinking vessel indicates that Brochard was capable of making responsible decisions as a captain.”

The report also said that Brochard did not have the training necessary to have used the deck monitor systems to identify the source of the flooding in time to save the boat.

When Marine Patrol officer Jeffery Langlanais arrived at the partially sunken boat, Brochard and Charles Robertson, the lone crew member, were sitting on top of the vessel.

The two gathered up a Garmin GPS, a laptop and some oyster relay records, placed them in a cooler and taped the lid shut. Then they abandoned the ship but climbed back on its side after it came to rest.

The Conservationist will be on display with other recently purchased vessels the DMR will use for research and law enforcement from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Point Cadet. The public will be allowed to board the boats and DMR staff will be there to answer questions about them.

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