Today’s Wall Street Journal carried a grim story for those in the shipping industry. According to the Journal, “none of the world’s biggest container shipping companies is likely to post a profit this year.” Some companies are going bankrupt while others are looking for partnerships and new cash infusions. Inevitably, when money is tight, some companies cut corners and dump oily waste at sea. Under the MARPOL treaty and Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, dumping untreated oily waste or bilge water is a crime. Workers who report these violations, however, are entitled to large whistleblower awards.
Earlier this summer, ship operator, Angelakos (Hellas) S.A., and the vessel’s owner, Gallia Graeca Shipping Ltd., were found guilty of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, falsification of official records and fraud. On October 21st, a U.S. District Court judge fined the companies $1.3 million.
At trial, evidence revealed that the cargo ship M/V Gallia Graeca travelled from China to Seattle in October 2015. During the voyage, the vessel’s pollution-control oil water separator wasn’t working. In fact, the separator hadn’t been serviced for months. An international treaty – MARPOL – requires vessels to treat bilge water before pumping it into the sea. A separator is used to keep any oil in the water from being pumped into the ocean.
On three different dates during the Gallia Graeca’s voyage, the vessel’s operator discharged overboard approximately 5,000 gallons of oily bilge water. Making matters worse, they falsified the ship’s log book and lied to Coast Guard officials during an inspection.
When an inspector asked to see test the separator, an engineer on the vessel rigged the equipment to make it appear that it was working properly.
Knowing that the vessel could be held for violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, the ship’s owner conspired with the operator to keep the Coast Guard from learning of the problems.
At sentencing, Judge John Coughenour said he hoped the sanctions “would resonate and cause other companies to pause when they think about creating a corporate culture that encourages deception.” In addition to the $1.3 million fine, Judge Coughenour also ordered a $200,000 community service payment to be shared between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Parks Foundation. It is anticipated that some of the money will be used for beach cleanup in Washington State’s Olympic peninsula. (The case was prosecuted in Seattle.)
The two engineers who participated in the cover up were given short prison terms. Both are Greek nationals.
After the sentencing, Seattle’s United States Attorney said, “These companies promoted a culture of lies and lawlessness that left a trail of pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Knowing that the Coast Guard was going to do an inspection of their shipping vessel, corporate managers allowed the Chief Engineer to present falsified documents. The significant fines imposed in this case send a clear message that those who spoil our environment by putting their business interests ahead of our laws will be held responsible.”
If the Wall Street Journal grim economic forecast is correct, we expect several more companies and crews will try to cut corners by dumping waste at sea.
Water Pollution, MARPOL and Whistleblower Awards
The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships is one of the very few criminal statutes that authorizes whistleblower awards. Enacted as part of the MARPOL treaty, the U.S. Act to Prevent Pollution for Ships and similar laws in other countries prevent ships from discharging oily water into the ocean anywhere in the world.
Under the Act, a crew member that has inside information about illegal oily waste discharges can receive up to 50% of whatever the government collects. The anti-oil pollution group Marine Defenders claims that whistleblower tips are behind over half the successful oil dumping charges against big ships. Unfortunately, most pollution incidents are never reported.
According to the organization, 88 million gallons of oil and oily waste water is intentionally dumped in U.S. waters each year. To put that number in perspective, that is almost 8 times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez several years ago.
Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships & Air Pollution
Much of the U.S. enforcement activity under MARPOL has been centered on water pollution but both MARPOL and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) also applies to air pollution.
APPS applies to all U.S.-flagged vessels and to all vessels, regardless of flag when at a U.S. port or operating within U.S. waters. The law covers not only the discharge of oily waste but also noxious liquids substances, trash (plastics); and certain air pollutants.
The law requires ships to keep accurate records and prohibits disposal of plastics anywhere in the ocean.
Although the MARPOL treaty dates back to the 1970’s, it wasn’t until 2005 that the pollution protocols were extended to air pollution. Under the most recent treaty version, MARPOL Annex VI now has requirements that regulate air pollution being emitted by ships, including the emission of ozone-depleting substances, Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulphur Oxides (SOx), and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). There are also requirements for on vessel incinerators, fuel quality and for off-shore drilling rigs.
Seamen, officers and engineers are eligible for awards. If you know of a ship illegally discharging pollutants into the water, you could earn the next award. U.S. law may also protect you from retaliation and can pay double lost wages and legal fees too. These recoveries are in addition to any award.
Interested in learning more about whistleblower awards, MARPOL and the Act to Prevent Pollution for Ships? Give us a call. Our whistleblower clients have received more than $100 million in award monies. For more information, contact attorney Brian Mahany at or by telephone at (414) 704-6731. All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept confidential.
Worried that you are not eligible for a whistleblower award because of nationality or lack of a U.S. green card? Don’t be. Awards can be paid regardless of citizenship or residency.
MahanyLaw – America’s Whistleblower Lawyers