Two German shipping companies must pay $1.2 million in fines after crew members repeatedly dumped oily waste at sea in Alaska and Texas, then lied to U.S. Coast Guard inspectors about it, according to the U.S. Justice Department on Friday. Nimmrich & Prahm Bereederung and Nimmrich & Prahm Reedrei, owners and operators of the cargo ship M/V Susan K, pleaded guilty to the crimes in an agreement with federal prosecutors in Texas and Alaska.
As part of the deal, ships they own or manage are barred from entering U.S. waters for the next five years.
Cargo vessels such as the Susan K can dispose of oily bilge wastewater by processing it an oil-water separator. They can also dispose it in the proper shore-based facilities. Crew members on the ship did neither.
For a seven-month period starting Aug. 1, 2011, the chief engineer and other crew members "repeatedly discharged" oily wastewater into the ocean, using a hose that bypassed the vessel's oil-water separator, the Justice Department said.
The law also requires that crews record the disposal of the oily bilge water in an record book that must be presented to the Coast Guard during port inspections. But the chief engineer falsified records to conceal the dumping at ports in Alaska on Jan. 24 and in Houston, Texas, on March 4.
The Coast Guard caught wind of the illegal dumping thanks to a tip from a "lower-level crew member" when the vessel was in port in Houston on April 6. Three whistle-blowers on the vessel helped with the investigation and were each awarded $67,000 by the court.
The companies pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice filed in the District of Alaska. In the Southern District of Texas, they pleaded guilty to separate counts for violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, according to the Justice Department. The ship's engineer had previously pleaded guilty to one criminal charge in Texas. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to one year probation.
Of the criminal penalty, $200,000 will go to the National Marine Sanctuaries Fund as a community service payment.
The M/V Susan K was boarded by several pirates for two months last year off the coast of Oman, before the illegal dumping is said to have begun, according to news accounts. The crew was treated "humanely" and the owners apparently had to pay $4 million to get the vessel released.