A foreign ship operator has agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine after the vessel's engineers allegedly dumped oily water into the sea and used false documentation to cover up the pollution.
Portline Bulk International of Portugal, which operates the Achilleus, admitted in a criminal plea agreement that its employees falsified entries in a record book used to track the disposal of bilge water.
Inspectors with the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the false documentation while the ship was docked at the Port of Charleston in August, according to court documents. The case is being heard in federal court in Charleston.
Two of the ship's engineers also signed plea agreements. They each face fines of up to $250,000 and a maximum of six years in prison. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.
If a judge approves the Portline plea deal, one-third of the ship operator's fine would pay whistle-blowers in the case. The rest would be deposited in a fund that helps foreign vessel crew members who have been abandoned in the U.S. by their companies.
It's illegal to dump bilge water into the ocean without first running it through an oil-water separator. All discharges, even those in which the oil-water separator isn't used, are supposed to be recorded in an oil record book, according to international regulations.
Court records show Achilleus crew members regularly bypassed the separator by running bilge water through a hose — sometimes referred to as a "magic pipe" that leads to an overboard discharge valve. The oily discharges were not documented.
"The practice was to hook up the bypass hose a day or two after the ship left port and leave it connected, under the deck plates, during the oceanic voyage," the plea agreement states "Before entering a new port, the hose was disconnected and hidden in a storage room."
One of the ship's crew members told a Coast Guard inspector the oil-water separator was "for display only, just for show," according to the plea agreement.
Crew members occasionally ran clean water through the oil-water separator to trick the ship's electronic monitoring systems.
"If these electronic monitoring systems were inspected, port authorities would be fooled into believing that the oil-water separator was actually being used in accordance" with international law.
The illegal discharges took place over at least a 16-month period that started in April 2017, according to court records.
This is at least the second case in which a foreign-operated vessel has been charged with dumping oily bilge water in the ocean near Charleston.
Aegean Shipping Management of Greece paid a $2 million fine in 2017 after admitting crew members on its Green Sky tanker vessel used a similar hose to bypass that ship's oil-water separator. Those crew members also falsified the ship's oil record book to cover up the pollution.