Onboard Whistle-blowers Aid in the Fight Against Ocean Dumping

By MarEx 2012-02-13 13:56:20

Last month, two companies that owned and operated the MV Aquarosa plead guilty to obstruction of justice and other charges, and were ordered to pay over $1 million in penalties and fines. This occurred after a crew member informed Coast Guard officials of illegal ocean dumping taking place onboard the ship and he now stands to collect up to $925,000 in rewards, although the judge has no yet ruled on his reward.

The New York Times reports that seafaring whistle-blowers, who usually expect financial compensation, are now one of prosecutors’ most used weapons in fighting maritime polluters. A growing number of cases have popped up for the federal government to pursue in port cities across the country.

However, as the cases increase, so do maritime company objections. Most shipping companies feel those seamen who do this are really just undermining maritime environmental law compliance by not reporting violations sooner. On the other hand, environmentalists say without these whistle-blowers, prosecuting these law violations would be almost impossible.

No one knows exactly how much is actually dumped into our oceans, but estimates suggest the amount is far more than any major oil spills which get much more attention.

Again, according to the New York Times report, most of the cases involve illegal dumping of sludge and oily bilge water, the residue from the engines. International conventions that the United States adopted in 1980 require ships to separate out oil, then incinerate it or store it until reaching port. The law also forbids dumping plastics. To skirt that requirement and save money, unscrupulous crews hook up hoses, known as “magic pipes,” that bypass the separation equipment, and then pump the oil overboard. The crews then fudge the logs, and the prosecutions often result from the falsified record-keeping rather than the dumping. One estimate is that 10 percent to 15 percent of the roughly 50,000 oceangoing commercial ships worldwide illegally dump oil and sludge.

A Department of Justice representative thinks that ocean dumping is nearly an epidemic and the government could not effectively eliminate polluters without the help of these so-called whistle-blowers. A 1987 provision to U.S. law allows mariners to collect up to half of the criminal fines enforced.

As word spreads, more crewmen are coming forward to report dumping. The pro is that you have a witness; the con is that it’s hard to determine whether you are getting the truth, according to a NAMEPA statement. One must remember that the road to the reward is not quick or fully promised. 

View our initial report on this case here.