Ship Owner and Operator Sentenced for Environmental Crimes for Tampering with Pollution Prevention Equipment and Failing to Report Hazardous Conditions

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Published January 20, 2023

Ship Owner and Operator Sentenced for Environmental Crimes for Tampering with Pollution Prevention Equipment and Failing to Report Hazardous Conditions

Louisiana / Washington D.C – Greek-based corporations have been ordered to pay a $2 million criminal fine for tampering with pollution prevention equipment and failing to report hazardous conditions on the Mississippi River immediately.

Empire Bulkers Limited and Joanna Maritime Limited, two related Greek companies, were sentenced on January 19, 2023, for knowing and willful violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) and the Ports and Waterways Safety Act in connection with their roles as the operator and owner of the Motor Vessel (M/V) Joanna.

The prosecution stems from an inspection of the M/V Joanna in New Orleans in March 2022, which revealed that required pollution prevention equipment had been tampered with, allowing 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 United States Coast Guard, had been falsified in order to conceal the improper discharges.

The Coast Guard discovered an unreported safety hazard during the same inspection. Inspectors discovered an active fuel oil leak in the engine room after following a trail of oil drops. The pressure relief valves on the fuel oil heaters, a critical safety device required 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, as well as the large volume of oil leaking from the pressure relief valve, created hazardous conditions that were not immediately reported to the Coast Guard in violation of the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. According to a joint factual statement filed in court, a fire or explosion in the purifier room could have been disastrous, resulting in a loss of propulsion, loss of life, and pollution.

“Make no mistake, willful tampering with required pollution control equipment and falsifying official ship logs to conceal illegal discharges are serious criminal offenses,” said Todd Kim, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “By concealing major safety issues from the Coast Guard, the defendants here not only broke the law, but also put the lives of the crew and the environment in jeopardy.”

“This ship owner and manager operated their foreign flagged vessel in US waters in deliberate violation of the environmental and safety laws designed to protect 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.”

Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia sentenced the two related companies to pay $2 million ($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 case was investigated by the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service with assistance from Coast Guard Sector New Orleans and the Eighth Coast Guard District.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney G. Dall Kammer for the Eastern District of Louisiana and Senior Litigation Counsel Richard A. Udell of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.