01 FEB 2008
For some time now the shipping press has contained cautionary stories of the ferocity with which the authorities in the US pursue shipping companies, usually foreign companies and their employees, for alleged oily water separator bypasses. Usually, the accused is faced with a range of allegations, the main one often being the entry of false information in the vessel’s oil record book. If the alleged discharge overboard has taken place outside US waters, the vessel can not be prosecuted for that act under US law, but it can be prosecuted under MARPOL. Flag states are responsible for prosecuting MARPOL violations.
However, the situation is different when the alleged discharge overboard is said to have happened inside US waters. In such circumstances, the full weight of the US legal system can be brought to bear on the accused. Somewhat embarrassingly for the Coast Guard, one of their own seafarers is facing allegations that he knew of and authorised the direct discharge (i.e., not through the oily water separator) of bilge waste overboard into Honolulu harbour.
The individual in question was a Main Propulsion Assistant (MPA) – presumably an engineer – aboard a USCG cutter. It seems that some of his shipmates complained (anonymously) that they had been ordered by the MPA to pump into the harbour approximately 2,000 gallons of bilge waste without using the oily water separator (OWS). In May 2006, the complaint was investigated by the US authorities. They interviewed engineer colleagues of the MPA, who stated that they had taken part in the operation described above. Evidence was also obtained that untreated bilge water had been discharged overboard on ten previous occasions, when the vessel was off Central and South America.
It is understood that the MPA initially denied the allegations, but later confessed that he had been aware of what was going on, but had turned a blind eye to it. The MPA has been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and making a false statement in connection with the release of oily bilge water into Honolulu Harbour. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to five years in prison on each count. It is understood that the investigation is continuing and that, depending on its outcome, the MPA could face further charges from federal and the State of Hawaii authorities, fines and/or lawsuits. It seems that, as his employer, the Coast Guard itself may also face charges, fines and/or lawsuits.
There are many who feel that the US authorities are over-zealous and punitive in their pursuit and treatment of seafarers accused of bypassing the OWS and it is not known whether the MPA was taken from the vessel in handcuffs and escorted by armed officers, but it would, at least, appear that they do not have one rule for their own people and one rule for everyone else.