Norwegian Shipping Line Faces US MARPOL Charges from African Incident

MARPOL violation
The US is prosecuting an alleged MARPOL violation off Africa found while inspecting records in the US (file photo)

Published Apr 14, 2023 3:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

Clipper Shipping, a division of Norway’s Solvang, a leading transporter of LPG and petrochemical gases, has been ordered to appear in a Houston court on April 18 for a first hearing related to a case over MARPOL violations. While the U.S. brings several MARPOL cases each year against merchant ships, this case is more unusual because it was not in a U.S. port and the way the situation was discovered.

The criminal charges were filed on April 6, 2023, in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division against Clipper Shipping and its vessel the Clipper Saturn. An unnamed chief engineer is being cited as the person in charge and responsible for the issues in the violation.

In the filing, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas says that the U.S. as part of an international regime enforces the MARPOL agreements to prevent pollution. They highlight that the U.S. in its role enforces the regulations for vessels regardless of their registry in the navigable waters of the U.S. or while in a port or terminal under the jurisdiction of the U.S. The Coast Guard has the authority to conduct inspections and enforcement of the laws.

The filing does not explain how the U.S. discovered these violations. They were apparently uncovered during a routine inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard when the 42,500 dwt Clipper Saturn arrived in the Port of Houston around October 28, 2021. The vessel, which was built in 2015 and is registered in Norway, is part of the company’s fleet of large gas carriers designed to carry butane, propane, or ammonia. It has a cargo capacity of 60,000 cbm.

The criminal information in the case filing points out the legal requirement of the ship to maintain an Oil Record Book detailing all of its waste oil operations and discharges. They point out that as the senior officer in the engine room, the chief engineer is responsible for the accuracy of the record book.

They contend that the Clipper Saturn made an illegal discharge of oily waste while at anchor. However, instead of happening in U.S. waters, they allege the incident took place while the vessel was at anchor off the coast of Lome, Togo in West Africa. 

The initial details do not allege that the discharge was seen and under investigation. Instead during a routine document check while in Houston, they report that the U.S. Coast Guard discovered that the Oil Record Book “failed to contain properly recorded entries regarding discharges of machinery space bilge water that had not been processed and discharged to a shore facility or barge.” They allege the incidents took place a month before the inspection, between September 27 and October 1, while the vessel was anchored off Togo.

The April 18 court appearance in Houston is a preliminary hearing to set terms for the case. Typically, courts have ordered the crewmembers from a ship to remain in the U.S. while the case proceeds which may mean they can be retained in the U.S. for months. The typical outcome is a fine and probation for the company and many shipping companies settle the cases as opposed to proceeding to trial. The ship’s officers however could serve jail time if convicted.