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An oceangoing freighter, right, is anchored in the Mississippi River awaiting disposition as a push boat starts up, left, Monday April 2, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

The petrochemical industry has long battled with the river pilots who help steer ships up and down the Mississippi River, mostly over the large fees the pilots charge industrial firms for their services.

Most of the skirmishing has played out in obscure regulatory meetings, with occasional faceoffs in court. Now, for the first time in years, the battle will move to the Louisiana Legislature.

House Bill 650 pushed by the chemical and energy industries and sponsored by Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, would make sweeping changes to the regulatory boards and rules for pilots. It would add industry members to their oversight panel and require the notoriously nepotistic groups to make an annual report of pilots, including a list of how many are related to other pilots or public officials. The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing Monday.

The legislation comes after the Crescent River Pilots, which handles ships between Pilottown, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans, asked the regulator that handles rates for a significant pay raise. The request, which associations for oil and chemical industries are fighting at the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission, seeks to boost the pay for those pilots to an average of $697,000 a year. Crescent says the increase would put its pilots in line with the other two major pilot groups on the lower Mississippi River, adding that their pay is scaled to the amount of work done.

The river pilots have long been well-paid and politically connected, and they employ a host of powerful lobbyists. Longtime former state Sen. Francis Heitmeier has long represented the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, or NOBRA, another of the major pilot organizations along the Mississippi. Its captains guide ships between New Orleans and the Capital City. Heitmeier’s son, Cory, is one of six Heitmeiers who are NOBRA pilots. 

The Crescent River Pilots sent an email blast to lawmakers on the House Commerce Committee, which is hearing the legislation, slamming Pressley’s bill as a power grab by deep-pocketed corporate interests.

“Big Oil and Big Chemical once more risk public safety to gain control of pilot organizations as outlined in HB650,” the email said in part. “Louisiana does not need companies responsible for Deepwater Horizon, Costa Concordia, Exxon Valdez, making decisions for public safety.”

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which is pushing the bill, responded with a “myth versus fact” sheet saying the legislation creates a “fair, transparent system” by adopting several practices used by the Lake Charles pilots. That group is often on good terms with industry groups, unlike the Mississippi River pilots.

Tyler Gray, head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said the measure would reform the pilotage system to make it more accountable to the public interest. He said the pilot groups that would be affected by the bill have a “lack of transparency.”

“The Bar Pilots and Lake Charles Pilots have been able to safely conduct their business in a transparent and fair manner, and it is time for the state governing authorities of the other pilotage associations to modernize this antiquated system, including opening up their ranks to qualified candidates regardless of race, gender or family ties,” Gray said.

All three of the Mississippi River pilot groups have a state mandate to guide boats along the tricky lower river, with the aim of keeping giant ships, many from other countries and carrying dangerous cargo, from crashing into one another, or into wharves or levees. The petrochemical and oil companies that use the river must pay for their services.

The gig pays very competitively. The pilots who traverse the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, colloquially known as NOBRA pilots, made $500,000 to $700,000 in 2020, regulatory filings show. Most of the Bar Pilots that year made over $500,000. In 2019, the last year of available data, Crescent pilots made an average of $526,958.

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Pressly, HB650’s sponsor, said he’s met with pilot groups in recent weeks and is hoping negotiations turn into a compromise. He said he’s hoping to add industry folks to the board overseeing the pilots so they’re not “self-governed,” and to make the qualifications for becoming a pilot widely known. Many of the pilots are closely related to other pilots, fueling complaints of nepotism.

“It just adds some transparency and sunshine to the process,” Pressly said.

The bill would change the makeup of the boards overseeing the Crescent pilots and NOBRA pilots – the two groups most often at loggerheads with industry – by requiring one member to be appointed from a list of nominees selected by several business-based groups, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, LMOGA and the Louisiana Chemical Association. It would require the governor to appoint a businessperson selected from a list submitted by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc, as well as a licensed pilot nominated by the pilot groups.

While the bill’s biggest impacts would be on the Crescent and NOBRA pilots, it would add regulations about training and transparency that would apply to all the river pilot groups, including the Bar pilots and the Lake Charles pilots.

Jack Anderson, president of the Crescent pilots’ oversight board, said in a recent interview that the bill is “dangerous” and will “threaten the safety of the citizens of Louisiana and traffic on the river on a daily basis.” He said industry groups are trying to kneecap the pilots because they asked for a pay raise.

“I don’t understand how we’re going to give it to the guys who did Deepwater Horizon and put them on the safety board,” he said.

Anderson said Thursday he met with Pressly and hopes to reach an agreement with him on the bill.

E. Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent pilots, said the oil and chemical associations are just trying to gain leverage in the ongoing battle over pay for pilots. He said his group has a sterling safety record and that the bill would jeopardize it. The oversight board “doesn’t belong to a group of corporate guys who are worried about profit,” he said.

Asked about complaints of nepotism, he said pilots are no different than any other professionals. The Crescent group votes on which applicants to let into the association, and their ranks include many pilots from the same families.

“It’s just like a law office or anything else,” Bopp said. “It’s not wrong for a son to follow in his father’s footsteps. If you were a blacksmith a long time ago, there’s a good chance the son is going to be a blacksmith.”

Casey Clayton, whom Gov. John Bel Edwards recently appointed to the Board of Examiners that oversees the NOBRA pilots, echoed those comments, saying children often see their parents as role models. Clayton – whose father was the former president of NOBRA – also said the bill would jeopardize safety by “allowing industry to control state pilotage.”

NOBRA’s Board of Examiners was roiled by internal strife after Edwards nominated the son of former Senate President John Alario to the Board of Examiners for NOBRA, ousting Heitmeier’s brother, Robert, in the process. Francis Heitmeier and Alario were longtime legislative allies.

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