Pacific-Gulf Marine pleads guilty to illegal oil discharges
The U.S. Justice Department said Thursday that American-based ship operator Pacific-Gulf Marine has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges that its fleet of four vessels committed illegal oil discharges.
As part of the plea agreement, Pacific-Gulf Marine will pay a $1 million criminal fine and $500,000 for community service, if approved by the court.
In a related case, a federal grand jury returned an indictment late Wednesday, charging two former chief engineers of the vessel “Tanabata” with various environmental crimes.
According to court documents, Pacific-Gulf Marine admitted that ship records misrepresented that hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil-contaminated bilge waste were properly discharged overboard through required pollution prevention equipment, when in fact the ships used bypass equipment, also known as “magical pipes,” to circumvent the oily water separator.
Pacific-Gulf Marine also admitted that its shore-side management “failed to provide sufficient management resources and support to ships, and also failed to exercise sufficient supervision and management controls to prevent and detect criminal violations by its employees,” court papers said.
The court papers further stated that Pacific-Gulf Marine made the illegal discharges to save money.
The Justice Department said Pacific-Gulf Marine, after learning of the federal investigation, voluntarily disclosed to the United States the results of an internal investigation which comprised about 50 reports of interviews with various current and former employees who worked aboard the four roll-on/roll-off vessels.
The criminal investigation started on Sept. 2, 2003 after Coast Guard inspections on the “Tellus” and “Tanabata” in Baltimore. However, like an earlier inspection on March 29, 2003, in which a bypass pipe laden with oil was found hidden under the engine room floor of the “Fidelio,” another ship managed by Pacific-Gulf Marine, engineers denied any illegal conduct.
The Justice Department said on the “Tanabata” the bypass pipe was allegedly thrown overboard by the ship’s chief engineer after the Coast Guard inspected the vessel in Baltimore.
“The Coast Guard is particularly concerned that those responsible for operation of a U.S.-flagged vessel would engage in such systematic and egregious conduct,” said Rear Adm. Craig E. Bone, Coast Guard assistant commandant for prevention, in a statement.
Engine room operations on board large ocean vessels generate large amounts of waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge waste. International and U.S. law prohibit the discharge of waste containing more than 15 parts per million oil and without treatment by an oil water separator and oil-sensing equipment.
The community service projects to be undertaken by Pacific-Gulf Marine will be administered by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and include funding environmental projects in the Chesapeake Bay and training students at the U.S. maritime academies.
Pacific-Gulf Marine must also remain on probation for three years under the terms of a government-required environmental compliance plan that includes an outside independent auditor and a court-appointed monitor paid for by the defendant.
Stephen Karas and Mark Humphries, former chief engineers of the “Tanabata,” were charged with conspiracy, violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships for failing to maintain an oil record book and false statements. Karas was also charged with a count of obstruction of justice for alleged witness tampering while Humphries has been charged with a count of obstruction for the alleged destruction of evidence. The investigation is continuing, the Justice Department said.