Greek Bulker Faces $2M Fine After Guilty Plea to MARPOL/Safety Issues

bulker guilty of oil pollution and safety violations
USCG discovered the MARPOL violation during a routine inspection (file photo)

Published May 25, 2022 1:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Greek shipowner and operator of bulker are the latest in a series of prosecutions announced by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Justice in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the latest case, resulting from a routine inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard, the ship’s owner and operators are facing a $2 million fine after pleading guilty to charges relating to environmental and safety crimes in the U.S.

The Department of Justice reported that Empire Bulkers and Joanna Maritime will each be fined $1 million after pleading guilty to deliberately tampering with pollution prevention equipment causing oil pollution and failing to report hazardous conditions. In addition to the fines, the proposed plea agreement which still requires court approval would also include four years of probation under an environmental compliance plan that would include independent ship audits and a court-appointed monitor.

The U.S. Coast Guard discovered the violations during a routine port inspection of the 33,717 dwt bulker Joanna in March 2021. The vessel, built in 2010 and registered in the Marshall Islands, is owned by Joanna Maritime and managed by Empire Bulkers of Greece.

“Deliberate violation of environmental and safety laws poses a serious threat to U.S. ports and waters, as well as to those working on ships,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The U.S. Coast Guard conducted a routine inspection of the bulker while it was in New Orleans between March 6 and 11, 2021. While the inspectors were aboard on March 11, one of them noticed that a valve handle used to sample the oil content of overboard discharges was out of position. On closer examination, they discovered that a metal piece had been welded inside enabled overboard discharges to occur while the sample being evaluated by the oil content monitor was being diluted with fresh water.

In pleading guilty, the two companies further admitted to knowingly falsifying the ship’s oil record book, a required log, to conceal the overboard discharges of oil contaminated waste. The discharge entries in the oil record book had been co-signed by an engineer that did not have anything to do with the operations or have knowledge of their accuracy. The Coast Guard noted in the court papers that while overboard discharges are permissible if they are processed through an oily water separator and measured by the oil content monitor, the entries made in the oil record book relating to overboard discharges and presented to the Coast Guard falsely indicated that discharges had occurred through the proper equipment.

After the Coast Guard was on the vessel, ship representatives sought permission to maneuver from the Bonnet Carre Anchorage to the CCI Buoys further upriver where cargo operations were scheduled to take place. Coast Guard inspectors traveling on the ship during the voyage noticed drops of oil in the engine room which lead them to further safety hazards unreported during the inspection.

The Coast Guard followed the trail of oil to an area near the purifier room. When they looked inside the purifier room, the Coast Guard discovered that the discharge line from the pressure relief valves had been disconnected and crimped closed disabling both pressure relief valves. According to the Coast Guard, the safety relief valves on the fuel oil heaters serve a critical safety function because they allow pressure to be released and oil diverted to a waste oil tank.

In announcing the lead agreement, prosecutors said that these corporations knowingly engaged in dangerous and deceitful misconduct that they believed warrants robust enforcement of the law. Going forward they said the companies would be under close supervision. 

News of this case comes just a week after the same offices also reported that a chief engineer of a large commercial bulk carrier pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to two felony counts of deliberately discharging oily water near New Orleans and lying to the U.S. Coast Guard during the investigation into the oil spill. The two incidents happened within days of each other both at the Port of New Orleans.