The Greek-based shipowner and operator of a Marshall Islands-registered bulk carrier have been ordered to pay a combined $2 million criminal fine for tampering with the vessel’s pollution prevention equipment and failing to immediately report hazardous conditions on the Mississippi River.
The two related companies, Empire Bulkers Limited and Joanna Maritime Limited, were sentenced for committing knowing and willful violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) and the Ports and Waterways Safety Act related to their role as the operator and owner of the M/V Joanna.
The prosecution stems from a March 2022 inspection of the vessel in New Orleans that revealed that required pollution prevention equipment had been tampered with to allow fresh water to trick the sensor designed to detect the oil content of bilge waste being discharged overboard. The ship’s oil record book, a required log presented to the U.S. Coast Guard, had been falsified to conceal the improper discharges.
During the inspection, the Coast Guard also discovered an unreported safety hazard. Following a trail of oil drops, inspectors found an active fuel oil leak in the engine room where the pressure relief valves on the fuel oil heaters, a critical safety device necessary to prevent explosion, had been disabled.
In pleading guilty, the defendants admitted that the plugging of the relief valves in the fuel oil purifier room and the large volume of oil leaking from the pressure relief valve presented hazardous conditions that had not been immediately reported to the Coast Guard in violation of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. Had there been a fire or explosion in the purifier room, it could have been catastrophic and resulted in a loss of propulsion, loss of life, and pollution, according to a joint factual statement filed in court.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon sentenced the two related companies to pay $1 million each and serve four years of probation subject to the terms of a government approved environmental compliance plan that includes independent ship audits and supervision by a court-appointed monitor.
The two companies pleaded guilty to knowing violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and the Ports and Waterways Safety Act in May. M/V Joanna’s Chief Engineer, Warlito Tan, was also chargedin the case but a jury found him not guilty on all four felony counts against him in back in November 2022.
“Make no mistake, willful tampering with required pollution control equipment and falsifying official ship logs to conceal illegal discharges are serious criminal offenses,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “In concealing major safety problems from the Coast Guard, the defendants here not only violated the law, but also recklessly risked the lives of the crew and the environment.”
“This ship owner and manager operated their foreign flagged vessel in U.S. waters in deliberate violation of the environmental and safety laws designed to protects our ports and waters,” said U.S. Attorney Duane A. Evans for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “Illegal, deceitful and dangerous conduct will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”