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Federal Authorities Crack Down on Sea-Borne Oil Polluters
The M/V Snow Flower, a 568-foot refrigerated container ship, was outbound from Los Angeles when it began experiencing serious problems in the engine room.
A faulty valve had caused waste oil and water levels in the bilge holding tank to begin rising, while one of the ship's deep water ballast tanks had become badly contaminated with heavy fuel oil. With no place to put the bilge water, crew members would later tell the Coast Guard, chief engineer Igor Krajacic decided to partially pump out of the port and starboard holding tanks while bypassing a key pollution-control device.
"I need a magic pipe," he told a junior engineer. The crew, sweating in the hot engine room, jury-rigged a pipe to a discharge valve. Then they began illegally pumping the oil and water directly overboard, mostly at night, as the Snow Flower continued on its voyage to Chile, and then to Gloucester Marine Terminal in New Jersey.
By the time the ship reached New Jersey, the Coast Guard -- alerted by someone on board -- was waiting.
In March, Holy House Shipping AB, the Swedish shipping company that operates the Snow Flower, a ship registered in the Cook Islands, was hit with $1.4 million in fines and community-service penalties after pleading guilty to the dumping cover-up by Snow Flower's engineers.
|Coast Guard inspections help keep the environment safe|
Federal prosecutors are stepping up their pursuit of sea-borne oil polluters, and they say they already have found enough offenders to put together a fleet of ships like the Snow Flower -- vessels that flout international law by using the ocean as an open sewer to dump millions of gallons of waste oil when no one is looking. And the prosecutors say they are finding the pollution may be far more widespread than they ever suspected.
"There's no shortage of cases," said Joseph A. Poux Jr., assistant chief of the environmental crimes section for the U.S. Department of Justice. "From large cruise lines to the smallest operator, there's not a segment of the industry we have not come across."
The prime incentive is money. Illegal dumping can save tens of thousands of dollars.
One of the earliest cases brought by the government involved Royal Caribbean Cruises, whose ship Sovereign of the Seas was caught in 1994 pumping oil-contaminated bilge waste off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ship engineers falsified records kept in the ship's Oil Record Book, which became known on board as the Eventyrbok -- Norwegian for "fairy tale book."
Two years ago Poux prosecuted a former Coast Guard chief warrant officer who had lied to federal agents investigating the discharge of oil-contaminated waste from the Coast Guard cutter Rush into Honolulu Harbor.
According to Poux, the amount of oil illegally dumped by oceangoing ships has a far greater impact on the environment than accidental spills. Some estimates, he said, put shipboard waste-dumping at more than 88 million gallons a year -- some eight times the amount of crude oil spilled when the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound 20 years ago.
Sludge filtered out from the low-grade fuel burned by many ships is particularly bad for the environment. It is supposed to be incinerated or off-loaded in port.
"It's almost like tar; that's what they are putting in the ocean," the federal prosecutor said.
The oil dumping doesn't have the immediate impact of an Exxon Valdez disaster, in which the thick toxic goo released from the ruptured hull of the grounded tanker suffocated or poisoned hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals. But it is by no means benign, said Michael Kennish, a marine scientist at the Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University.
Salt marsh sediments can retain oil wastes "for years and years and years." Emulsified oil solids sink to the bottom, where they affect bottom-feeding marine life.
"Oil is picked up by plants and animals everywhere," Kennish said. "Dump it into the Continental Shelf, and that's where our fisheries are. So the oil gets into the food chain."
One study has estimated 300,000 seabirds are killed annually along Canada's Atlantic coast from the type of routine discharge of oily waste, federal officials said. A chemical "oil fingerprint" analysis conducted by the Coast Guard found the bilge waste from one ship charged with environmental crimes was consistent with oil found on nearby beaches.
In New Jersey, at least eight criminal cases have been brought against shipping companies since 2001, including the operator of the M/V Snow Flower, said Ralph Marra Jr., the state's acting U.S. attorney.
"Environmental crime is a particular priority for this office," he said.
Last June, the Danish shipping company Clipper Marine Services pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government by maintaining false records aboard its ship, the M/T Clipper Trojan. The company paid $3.25 million and agreed to retrofit some of its ships with new anti-pollution equipment. Meanwhile, the chief engineer was sentenced to five months in prison.
In February, after a Coast Guard inspection of the ship M/V Myron N in Port Newark, a Liberian shipping company and two engineers on the ship were indicted on charges of covering up the dumping of waste oil over a four-year period. The indictment includes allegations that the ship's engineer rehearsed junior crew members so that they would tell investigators they had not done any illegal dumping. Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Ferzan, who heads the office's commercial crimes unit, said the case is set to go to trial next month.
THE ADVENT OF SEPARATORS
All ships leak oil. Lubricants ooze from gaskets and pumps, fuel may spill from lines, ongoing maintenance requires oil changes on machinery, and fuel oil burned in propulsion systems generates waste sludge when it is purified. Washed down with water -- even rain from open hatches -- it all finds its way down into the bilges, the lowest part of a ship.
Bilge water constantly accumulates in any vessel, depending on its age and upkeep, and eventually must be pumped out for the maintenance and ultimate safety of the ship. At one time, the practice was to simply to dump the bilge waste overboard. But an international treaty, known as the MARPOL Protocol, was adopted in the 1970s, setting standards for the amount of waste oil that could be routinely discharged. Ships were required to install a pollution-control device known as an oily water separator to treat the bilge water.
The device does what its name implies: separates and filters the oil from the water so that the water can be pumped out of the ship. The oil goes into a holding tank for later disposal. However, Coast Guard officials note, the machinery can be costly to monitor and adds nothing to companies' bottom line. It's also expensive to dispose of the waste oil on shore. And on older ships especially, the separators are installed as an afterthought -- like a catalytic converter thrown onto a Model T Ford -- and may not work as designed. The systems may "hiccup" in heavy seas, shutting down as the ship rolls, said Ralph Savercool, a senior marine inspector for the Coast Guard.
For some ship engineers, it's just easier, and cheaper, to cheat the system. They simply bypass the oily water separator with a temporary pipe -- a magic pipe, as it has come to be known throughout the shipping industry, that is removed and hidden before the next U.S. port of call.
Savercool has seen all kinds of ways that ship engineers may try to conceal evidence of tampering -- despite the risk of losing their license, paying millions of dollars in fines, even going to jail.
In the tight confines of a seagoing ship, it's not easy detective work.
"We look at bulkheads to see if there are marks. We look at the separator. We look for spare pipes with oil," he explained.
The captain and senior engineering officers of the Horizon Navigator, a ship that the Coast Guard said has never had environmental issues -- recently invited a reporter and photographer to climb through the complex compartments below deck while the ship was tied up at Port Elizabeth.
The Horizon Navigator is typical for the oceangoing freight trains that call on Port Newark and Port Elizabeth every day. The black-hulled, 800-foot ship has a crew of 27 and can carry 1,100 containers. Fully loaded, it burns about 650 barrels of oil a day.
"If you're bored here, you're not doing your job," remarked David Cvitanovic, the ship's captain, from his office high up near the bridge.
Far down below, oil lines and other piping snake through the hot, noisy engine room, a space filled with machinery, gauges, heavy valves and wisps of steam. Farther down several more ladders and across a series of catwalks with yellow-painted hand rails rubbed bare is the ship's oily water separator. The small piece of machinery, painted green, is tucked beneath the propeller shaft.
It is no bigger than a typical home heating furnace. Inside are oil-attracting "coalescer" beads. As oily water flows through the unit, oil droplets attach to the beads and the water passes through. Like a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing that has been allowed to stand, oil floats in water. When enough oil accumulates on the beads, they break away and float to the top of the tank. The treated water is then pumped through an oil content monitor. It cannot be discharged overboard unless the oil content drops to less than 15 parts per million.
The Horizon Navigator not only has a separator, it has added a pre-purifier treatment system. While not required by law, said Wally Becker, senior vessel superintendent for Horizon Lines, the system is being installed on most of the company's ships to further protect the environment.
"The company wanted to be 'greener,'" he said.
Most of the federal criminal cases to date have involved the temporary bypass pipe installed by engineers to circumvent the oily water separator. But Savercool said it is not the only place to find a smoking gun.
" 'The magic pipe' is a bad term," suggested the Coast Guard civilian inspector as he ducked below the propeller shaft. "It was a pipe that investigators found on one ship to bypass the oily water separator, but it can be found anywhere in the system."
When the Coast Guard's suspicious are aroused -- sometimes by sloppy record-keeping mistakes but, more often than not, by disgruntled crew members who become whistleblowers -- investigators may spend all day on an inspection, from 6 a.m. to after midnight, Savercool said.
"We trace all the piping. That's why it takes so long," he said.
Justice Department officials say those who try to evade the law have gotten better at hiding the evidence. Poux, who said he has been lied to in more languages than he can count, calls it an evolving game.
"In my first case, one of the things that tipped off the inspector was tool marks on a flange," he recalled. "Then they started painting things, so we began looking for new paint. Last year they started painting things and rubbing dirt on it."
There are critics of the government prosecutions who say the Justice Department is being overly aggressive. Thomas Russo, an attorney for Holy House AB, argued that when crew members know they will get a substantial reward for reporting transgressions to the Coast Guard, they are less likely to report them to their own company. And, he said, ship operators are basically being prosecuted for record-keeping violations, not pollution.
Marra is unapologetic. Falsifying records, he said, is simply the obstruction of justice. Whistleblowers, he added, always fear they can be fired. And the Snow Flower was discharging oily waste within one day's sail from New Jersey.
"We catch criminals any way we can," said Marra.