Towboat owner pleads guilty to a pollution charge in the oil spill along West Virginia-Kentucky border

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — The owner of a towboat that sank and resulted in pollution of a river along the West Virginia-Kentucky border pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal pollution charge.

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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, resulting in pollution of oil and other substances.

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. 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.