A federal judge in Houston ordered an international shipping company to pay a $1.5 million fine after it admitted to releasing untreated oily bilge water off the coast of West Africa in 2021 and then attempting to conceal those illegal discharges.
Clipper Shipping A.S., a division of Norway-based petrochemical gas transporter Solvang ASA, pleaded guilty Thursday to failing to accurately maintain a record of its handling of oily materials, a violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, according to federal court documents. U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett then ordered the company to pay the fine in addition to implementing an environmental compliance plan for nine of its vessels, including the Clipper Saturn, from which the discharges were made.
"Not only did this ship pollute waterways, but they tried to cover it up," said prosecutor Alamdar S. Hamdani, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. "... Unfortunately for them, they got caught when they docked in Houston. The fine imposed today tells them that there is a bigger cost to endangering our citizens and the environment in which they live."
Philip Hilder, a Houston-based defense attorney for Clipper Shipping, said in a statement that the company took responsibility for the “unauthorized actions of two crew members, who are no longer employed.”
“The company's corporate culture categorically rejects and will not tolerate activities that deviate or violate laws and our strict ethical policy,” Hilder also said. “Numerous additional controls, procedures, and training to prevent and detect impermissible activities have been implemented.”
While the Clipper Saturn was anchored near the African coastal town of Lome, Togo, during the fall of 2021, its chief engineer ordered crew members to transfer the ship's oily bilge water to a water tank and then discharge it directly overboard during the night, according to court documents, which do not name the chief engineer. Bilge water is oily engine room waste that regularly accumulates on motor tankers, and law requires it to be processed before it is released into the sea so it contains no more than 15 parts per million of oil.
To execute the illegal disposal of the oily waste, the ship's chief engineer also directed crew members to remove a section of piping and place a hose into the water tank before attaching the hose to an eductor to create suction, court records show. The engineer later instructed crew members to reinstall and repaint the piping so it would appear as if none had been removed.
The discharges also were not entered into the ship's Oil Record Book as required by law, according to court documents.
"We take seriously the crimes of illegally discharging oily bilge water at sea and falsifying records to obstruct the United States' ability to investigate those discharges," said Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Before the Clipper Saturn arrived in the Port of Houston in late October 2021, one of its former crew members contacted the U.S. Coast Guard to report the violations, according to court records, which show the Coast Guard then corroborated the allegations by inspecting the 653-foot vessel and speaking to other crew members.
"The Coast Guard is committed to protecting our oceans and waterways from those who deliberately jeopardize the well-being and safety of the environment and the public," said Cpt. Keith Donohue, the commander of the Coast Guard's Houston-Galveston sector.