Höegh Fleet Services, a Norwegian operator of ocean-going cargo ships, pleaded guilty this morning to falsifying records to cover up the fact that one of its ships was dumping oil into the Pacific Ocean. Höegh Fleet Services entered guilty pleas in federal court in Tacoma, admitting guilt to felony charges filed by United States Attorneys in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
Höegh Fleet Services pleaded guilty to a total of seven felony counts related to the falsification of records and the concealing of evidence that the marine vessel Höegh Minerva was intentionally dumping waste oil into the ocean.
Ships such as the Höegh Minerva generate waste oil from a variety of sources, including the process to purify the heavy fuel oil used to power the ship. Like other ships of its size, the Höegh Minerva has equipment, including an “oily water separator,” to process oil wastes. Federal and international laws require that oily water be processed through the oily water separator so that any water discharged into the sea contains less than 15 parts per million of oil. In addition to maintaining equipment such as the oily water separator, United States law requires ships like the Höegh Minerva that enter U.S. waters to maintain an “Oil Record Book” that documents all transfers of oil on the ship, including discharges to the sea.
According to court documents filed in this case, crew members on the Höegh Minerva constructed a bypass device called a “magic pipe” that allowed them to pump inadequately treated oil-contaminated wastewater directly into the ocean. Initially installed in June 2003 while the vessel sailed between Canada and Asia, the magic pipe remained installed for several days at a time, allowing crew members to bypass the ship’s pollution prevention equipment.
The magic pipe was removed several days before the Höegh Minerva arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on September 2, 2003. After its removal, crew members painted the fittings where the magic pipe had been installed to conceal its prior use. Coast Guard officials boarded the vessel at the Port of Los Angeles and, several days later, in Richmond, California. At both ports, ship officers failed to inform Coast Guard officials of the illegal dumping. Moreover, in Richmond, crew members presented Coast Guard inspectors with a falsified oil record book that failed to document the illegal discharges. On September 11, the falsified Oil Record Book was again presented to Coast Guard inspectors at the Port of Vancouver in Washington.
The illegal dumping from the ship came to light after a whistleblower onboard the ship secretly passed a note to Coast Guard inspectors in Richmond describing the illegal activity.
In relation to the case filed in Los Angeles, Höegh Fleet Services pleaded guilty to two felony counts – making false statements to the Coast Guard and failing to maintain an accurate Oil Record Book. The same charges were filed by the United States Attorney in San Francisco, whose district includes Richmond. In Washington, Höegh was charged with obstructing Coast Guard proceedings, making false statements to the Coast Guard and failing to maintain an accurate Oil Record Book.
“The waters off the west coast of the United States, one of the most beautiful and important natural resources in the world, shall be victimized no longer,” said United States Attorney Debra W. Yang. “The case against Höegh is the latest in a series involving unscrupulous shipping and cruise companies. We will continue to chase down any polluter no matter which port they flee to.
“The outcome in this case demonstrates the effects of the federal government using its combined efforts to discover and punish those who pollute the environment.”
In plea agreements that have been filed in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tacoma, Höegh Fleet Services agreed to pay $3.5 million in fines, to develop and implement a comprehensive environmental compliance plan for its fleet of 40 vessels that call on United States ports, and to be on probation for four years. Höegh Fleet Services is scheduled to be formally sentenced in Tacoma on June 29.
The fine will be divided between the three districts involved in this prosecution. Of the $1 million that will be paid in relation to the case filed in Los Angeles, the United States Attorney’s Office will ask that $500,000 be turned over the Channel Islands National Park, in part because the Höegh Minerva traveled through the park’s waters on its journey into and out of Los Angeles.
Channel Islands National Park plans to use the funds for kelp forest resource monitoring, recovery of the island fox, marine law enforcement, marine interpretive programs and a cultural resources management program to monitor historic shipwrecks.
“This settlement will make an immediate and significant difference by increasing the level of resource protection and service to the public who use the park,” said Jack Fitzgerald, chief ranger of Channel Islands National Park.
Höegh Fleet Services is the latest company to pay significant fines to the government in a pollution case. Previously, approximately $2 million from fines paid by criminal defendants has been earmarked for the Channel Islands National Park, which has used the funds to establish a Law Enforcement Endowment Fund, to run a breeding program for the endangered white abalone, to help pay for construction costs of the Pt. Bennett Research Station on San Miguel Island and to establish the Channel Island Environmental Educational Fund.
“With these funds, we will be able to augment our programs in cooperation with the state of California to support the management of newly established Marine Protected Areas and resources that currently are in jeopardy,” Fitzgerald said.
“I am very pleased by the results of this case and hope that it sends a strong message that protecting our oceans from all types of threats is important to the Coast Guard, and we will continue to aggressively enforce international and domestic environmental law,” said Vice Admiral Terry M. Cross, Commander, Coast Guard, Pacific Area.
This matter was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. They received assistance from the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the Washington State Department of Ecology, Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program.