by Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela J. Boehland
The large, green generators in the engine room of a 292-foot ship moored to a pier in San Francisco grind to life, filling the enclosed space with machine-produced roar. Coast Guard inspectors take a few slow laps around the room looking for malfunctions, leaks, fire risks and safety hazards.
Coast Guard inspectors like these routinely board commercial ships to conduct extensive checks of the ship’s logs, machinery panels, fire-fighting systems and survival gear and to ensure that the ship and its crew are in compliance with all laws. This measure is a proactive step taken to prevent pollution and increase safety at sea. However, when the safety of the sea itself is in danger and pollution isn’t just a threat, but an intentional crime, it is up to these inspectors to spot the violations and up to Coast Guard lawyers and the Department of Justice to prosecute the offenders.
In 1973, the International Maritime Organization held the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) to protect the sea and minimize pollution. MARPOL, a treaty ratified by 152 countries, is a set of international pollution regulations that became the foundation for several pieces of national legislation such as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Angel Galinanes has been working to protect the environment since he joined the Coast Guard more than seven years ago. He specializes in MARPOL violation cases. A Notre Dame graduate, he joined the Coast Guard after working as a civilian lawyer for several years. At the Coast Guard’s 5th District in Portsmouth, VA., he did a wide variety of legal work as a junior officer, handling everything from courts-martial to environmental crimes. He was then transferred to Coast Guard Sector San Francisco where he worked as a marine casualty investigator for several years, but is back to practicing law for the 11th District legal staff in Alameda, Calif.
Galinanes said environmental regulations state that before fluids are pumped overboard they first have to pass through an oily water separator. The separator has a sensor that detects how much oil is in the water that is set to be discharged. If the oil to water ratio is 15-parts per million or more, it sounds an alarm and stops the discharge. If, however, you bypass the oily water separator, you can pump whatever you want overboard.
And Galinanes has heard all sorts of reasons why ships’ crews bypass the oily water separator.
“They may think it is too costly or complicated to operate,” said Galinanes. “The crew may do it to be more efficient, faster. Or they may do it because they don’t have the expertise to operate the machine correctly. Or they may do it because someone told them to do it that way, possibly the company or higher ranking officers. It might just be a person being sloppy. There are all kinds of reasons that it could happen in terms of motivation.”
Additionally, regulations require mariners to account for all fluids taken on or off the ship in log books, such as the oil record book.
“If you are throwing out accumulated bilge water, disposing oil residue, or if you’re transferring oil to a land facility, you need to log it,” said Galinanes.
Coast Guard inspectors are among the first to discover MARPOL violations. They read through the logs and conduct soundings on the tanks to ensure that the fluid levels match the log books. And when things don’t add up, the questions start. If there is any evidence of an environmental crime, Coast Guard legal becomes involved.
Coast Guard lawyers like Galinanes examine the evidence, and the local staff judge advocate briefs the Coast Guard district commander on how to proceed and whether or not to turn the potential case over to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. The Coast Guard continues to work closely with the DOJ, advising them of the regulations, procedures and offering technical assistance. Ultimately, it is up to the DOJ to prosecute the case.
Merchant sailor Capt. Bill Schmid has been working in the oil-shipment business since the 1970s, and he said Coast Guard efforts have made a huge impact on reducing pollution incidents. He said when he started in the industry pollution was a regular part of working on oil tankers.
He said he remembers a time when sailing in the Gulf of Mexico meant transiting through giant oil slicks. Now, he said, he thinks there is more oil in a parking lot after a rain storm than discharged by a tanker.
“Back then, oily-water separators were unreliable, and we had no choice but to dump oil in the water,” Schmid said. “But now, with all the new technology, there is no excuse for polluting.”
However, Schmid thinks it is more than just technology. He said he has seen a cultural shift in the merchant fleet ever since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The 11-million gallon spill resulted in strict regulatory legislation known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and stepped up enforcement by the Coast Guard.
“After OPA90 everyone was terrified of the Coast Guard, and fear is a powerful motivator,” said Schmid. “Companies will not stand for pollution. It is a career killer for a captain.”
Schmid retired from sailing in the 1990s and became a ship inspector for the state of California. He now teaches tanker operations to the next generation of merchant sailors at the California Maritime Academy and feels optimistic about their commitment to the preservation of the sea.
“These kids grew up recycling, and they have very little tolerance for pollution,” he said.
OPA90 had a huge impact on the merchant fleet and increased the enforcement of environmental regulations. However, even with technological advancements, legislation and increased enforcement, some merchant mariners still willfully pollute. In 2010, the DOJ saw the successful prosecution of the chief engineer of Transmar Shipping Company’s motor vessel New Fortune for failing to maintain an oil record book.
When the New Fortune, a 26,136-ton ocean-going cargo ship registered to the Marshall Islands, pulled into the port of Oakland from South Korea, Coast Guard inspectors were tipped off by crewmembers that a “magic hose” was being used to dispose of the vessel’s oil waste overboard. A magic hose is an oily water separator bypass.
Further examination, by the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, revealed evidence of falsified entries in the oil record book.
The second engineer was also prosecuted for aiding and abetting the failure to maintain the oil record book and for creating the impression that the vessel was MARPOL compliant.
The result was a guilty plea from all parties. Transmar was ordered to pay a fine of $750,000 and a community service payment of $100,000. Additionally, they were ordered to develop, fund and implement a fleet-wide compliance plan that ensured future MARPOL compliance for all of their vessels. This included training, creating an environmental manual, and hiring an independent, environmental consultant to conduct compliance audits on Transmar ships.
Polluting the sea is a crime and a failure to comply with MARPOL hurts the world’s oceans. Protecting the sea is one of the Coast Guard’s greatest missions. Inspectors spot the discrepancies and Coast Guard and Department of Justice lawyers hold the polluters accountable.