Two German shipping companies have agreed to $1.2 million in fines after one of their cargo ships, the Susan K, made and concealed illegal oily discharges en route to Alaska and Texas in 2011 and 2012.
The Susan K's owners, Nimmrich and Prahm Bereederung and Nimmrich and Prahm Reedrei, pleaded guilty Friday to obstruction of justice and failing to prevent pollution from the Susan K. Along with the fine, $200,000 of which must be paid to a Texas marine sanctuary, the companies are also barred from owning or operating vessels in any United States' waters for five years under a plea agreement filed in Texas federal court.
Ships like the Susan K are required by law to either dispose of such wastewater at port facilities or use an oil-water separator while at sea. They're also supposed to record such discharges in a book.
It's hard to know exactly where the Susan K's dumping occurred, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis.
"What we have learned is that it often happens off at sea, far away from port in areas where it's hard to observe," Feldis said.
In August 2011, the Susan K's chief engineer, Rudolf Hofer, and other crew members welded a pipe to the 3,642-ton cargo ship's ballast water system, according to the plea agreement. Up until March 2012, Hofer and the crew were using a flexible hose to "repeatedly" discharge oily water from the ballast system and bilge tank directly overboard, the plea agreement says. On Jan. 24, 2012, during the time the companies admit the dumping occurred, the Susan K docked in Alaska at the Port of Seward after Hofer, the engineer, had falsified its oil records, prosecutors said.
A "lower-level" crewman tipped off the Coast Guard, which boarded the Susan K in Houston, Texas, in April 2012, according to federal prosecutors. In all, three whistle-blowers among the crew helped investigators and were each awarded $67,000 by the federal court for the District of South Texas.
The Coast Guard inspectors found the hose used in the dumping and evidence that Hofer, the engineer, falsified records in the ship's required record books to hide the dumping. The Oil Record Book, as it is called, did not contain information about the oily water releases when the Susan K came into Seward on Jan. 24 and Houston, Texas, on March 4, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
The plea agreement requires the Susan K's owners to pay $200,000 to the National Maritime Sanctuary Foundation to promote protection and preservation of the Flower Garden and Stetson Banks National Marine Santuary, headquartered in Galveston, Texas.
According to news agency Reuters, Somali pirates took control of the Susan K off the coast of Oman during the summer of 2011, before the dumping began, and held the ship and crew ransom until its German owners apparently paid $5.7 million to the pirates.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.