September 21, 2007
Guilty plea in Puerto Rico pollution case
India-based shipping company Accord Ship Management and Chief Engineer Francisco Sabando pleaded guilty yesterday in connection with the illegal dumping of oily sludge, bilge wastes, and oil contaminated ballast water from one of the company's ships, the M/V Sportsqueen, a 479-foot general cargo vessel, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Ronald J. Tenpas, U.S. Attorney Rosa E. Rodriguez-Velez, and U.S Coast Guard Captain James E. Tunstall.
Accord Ship Management pleaded guilty to a four count criminal information charging it with conspiracy, violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), and two obstruction of justice charges.
According to the plea agreement, Accord will pay a criminal fine of $1.75 million and serve a three year term of probation during which time all of the ships in its fleet will be banned from U.S. waters and ports.
Chief Engineer Sabando pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges and will serve prison terms of five months.
"Accord Ship Management and the crew of the M/V Sportsqueen chose to violate the law and were not willing to take the steps to ensure compliance and because of this, they will be banned from the opportunity to do business in U.S. ports," said Ronald J. Tenpas, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Today's jail sentences and fines are a strong reminder that the United States government does not tolerate deliberate pollution by vessel companies or their crews."
According to the plea agreements, on April 14, 2007, the Sportsqueen arrived at port in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard.
During the boarding, Coast Guard inspectors learned that Chief Engineer Sabando had ordered crew members to dump oil sludge and bilge wastes into the ocean and had falsified the ship's oil record book to conceal these discharges. With assistance from several lower level crew members, Coast Guard inspectors discovered and seized the bypass hose and pipes used to dump the oil sludge, bilge waste, and contaminated ballast water overboard.
"We have a collective obligation to protect our environment, and we will prosecute those who flagrantly violate our environmental laws. These crimes affect our health, our coastline and marine life. We will continue to join efforts to prevent these crimes, and to preserve the natural environment surrounding our island," said Rosa Emilia Rodr’guez-VŽlez, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico. "We are pleased that we have reached a solution to these matters, and that Accord Ship Management has accepted full responsibility for its unlawful actions."
"Federal law has prohibited the discharge of refuse, including oil, into United States' waters for nearly 100 years, and International waters for nearly 40 years," said Captain James E. Tunstall, Sector San Juan Commander. "Operators of commercial ships understand well the impact oil has on our seas, and the associated laws that are in place to prevent oil discharges. While the vast majority of shipping companies go to great lengths to protect our marine environment, their remains a few that intentionally commit environmental crimes. The Coast Guard is proud to cooperate with the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies in detecting and prosecuting the operators that commit such crimes."
As part of his plea, the Chief Engineer of the ship admitted he lied to the Coast Guard about his knowledge and use of the bypass hose. In addition to accepting the guilty pleas, the court issued monetary awards to five witnesses under a provision of APPS which gives the court discretion to award up to half of the fine to persons who provide information leading to a conviction under the Act to Prevent Pollution by Ships. The Ship's First, Second, and Third Engineers, as well as an Oiler and Bosun were each awarded $50,000.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service working with marine investigators and vessel inspectors of U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico. The prosecution was handled by prosecutors in the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's office for the District of Puerto Rico.