Ship Operator Pleads Guilty, Concealing Pollution

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Panamanian company that operated a 40,000-ton oil tanker ship that regularly made calls in multiple ports in Texas pleaded guilty Oct. 21 in federal court in Houston for deliberately concealing pollution discharges from the ship directly into the sea, the Justice Department announced.

Styga Compania Naviera S.A., the operator of the M/T Georgios M, pleaded guilty to three felony violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships for failing to properly maintain an oil record book as required by federal and international law.

According to a plea agreement filed with U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the company has agreed to pay a $1m criminal fine along with a $250,000 community service payment to the congressionally-established National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. The money will be designated for use in the Flower Garden and Stetson Banks National Marine Sanctuary, headquartered in Galveston, Texas, to support the protection and preservation of natural and cultural resources located in and adjacent to the sanctuary.

"Stopping the illegal pollution from ships continues to be a priority for the Department," said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "As long as companies continue to bypass this nation's environmental laws, the department will continue to bring cases and seek justice for those involved."

According to the joint factual statement, from December 2006 until February 2009, senior engineering officers and crewmembers acting on behalf of Styga installed a bypass pipe known as a "magic pipe" in order to avoid the pollution control equipment on-board the ship. The senior engineers then directed junior engineers to connect the so-called "magic pipe" and deliberately discharge sludge and oily waste directly into the ocean.

Federal and international law requires that all ships comply with pollution regulations that include the proper disposal of oily water and sludge by passing the oily water through a separator aboard the vessel or burning the sludge in the ship's incinerator. Federal law also requires ships to accurately record each disposal of oily water or sludge in an oil record book, and to have the record book available for the U.S. Coast Guard when the vessel is within the waters of the United States. The Georgios M often called on ports in Corpus Christi, Texas City, Freeport, and Houston, Texas while engaging in the international oil trade.

According to court documents, the engineers knowingly failed to make the required entries into the oil record book including the fact that sludge and oily waste had been discharged directly into the ocean using the "magic pipe" and circumventing the internationally required pollution control equipment. The senior engineers also made false entries in the oil record book to conceal the fact that the pollution control equipment had not been used. The crewmembers then attempted to conceal the discharges on Feb. 19, 2009, during a Coast Guard boarding at the port in Texas City, by providing the falsified oil record book to the boarding crew.

The investigation was conducted by the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Texas City, Texas; Coast Guard Investigative Service in Houston, and the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division in Houston. The case is being prosecuted by the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.

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