Today’s news:

Barge captain pleads guilty in Astoria oil spill

A barge captain who had alcohol in his blood when 2,000 gallons of oil spilled from his boat into the East River in March pleaded guilty to felony charges last week, the state attorney general said.

Robert Lee Preston, 43, of Picayune, Miss., entered a guilty plea last Thursday to a Class E felony charge of recklessly endangering public health safety or the environment and is expected to be sentenced to probation and a $15,000 fine, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said last week.

“Protecting the health of New York’s waterways and natural resources is of primary importance to the Department of Environmental Conservation,” state DEC Commissioner Erin Crotty said in a release. “This case should serve as a warning that those who put the health of those resources in jeopardy will be punished.”

On the morning of March 21, the barge owned by Bouchard Transportation Co. was docked at the Castle Fuel Oil facility at 17-10 Steinway St. in Astoria, where Preston was overseeing the loading of No. 6 heating oil into the vessel , Spitzer said.

But a Castle dock worker discovered that some of the oil was flowing from the barge’s deck into the waters below, spilling between 1,500 and 2,000 gallons of oil into the East River, according to DEC estimates.

A Breathalyzer test taken at the scene showed that Preston had a blood alcohol level of .10, prompting investigators from the DEC’s Division of Law Enforcement to arrest him on the spot, Spitzer said. A level of .06 or above is considered sufficient to prove a boat operator is impaired, said Capt. Terrance Revella, the DEC’s chief police officer.

Although personnel from the DEC and U.S. Coast Guard immediately began clean-up efforts, some of the oil reached the Bronx shoreline and contaminated an area near the Throgs Neck Bridge.

The $1.3 million cleanup was paid for by Bouchard Transportation, which also paid a $75,000 civil penalty.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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