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$1 million criminal fine in fishing vessel pollution case

Written by Nick Blenkey
Guilty plea in oily bilge

The U.S. Department of Justice says that Sea Harvest Inc., operator of the fishing vessels Enterprise and Pacific Capes, along with Fishing Vessel Enterprises Inc., the vessels’ owner, pleaded guilty yesterday to violating the Clean Water Act for both knowing and negligent discharges of oily bilge water from the vessels’ engine rooms.

The companies were sentenced to pay a $1 million criminal fine and serve a five-year term of probation. As a special condition of probation, the companies will be required to implement a robust environmental compliance plan at their own expense that will cover 36 commercial fishing vessels that are owned or operated by the defendants.

“The laws that govern the discharge of oily bilge waste from vessels have been on the books for decades,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s plea should send the message that we will no longer tolerate the routine discharge of oily bilge waste into New Bedford Harbor and its surrounding waters. Vessel owners and operators can either voluntarily comply with laws that protect the nation’s waters or face criminal prosecution.”

According to court documents, the defendants owned and operated multiple vessels engaged in commercial fishing operations out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. From at least early 2017 until late 2018, as a result of insufficient supervision, fishing vessels owned and operated by the defendants discharged oily bilge waste from the vessels into the sea on multiple occasions.

Count one of the information charged that, on Sept. 20, 2017, the New Bedford Massachusetts Police Port Security Unit traced an oil sheen in the Acushnet River to the F/V Enterprise, which was owned and operated by the defendants. When questioned about the sheen, the vessel’s manager confirmed that he had illegally pumped oily bilge water from the Enterprise’s engine room bilge overboard into the Acushnet River.

Previously, the vessel had been subject to several enforcement actions related to the improper management of oily bilge waste on the vessel. On Nov. 19, 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a Letter of Warning to the vessel for pumping oily bilge waste into the Acushnet River. In addition, on or about Jan. 26, 2017, the Coast Guard issued a Captain of the Port Order requiring the vessel to return to port and discharge oily bilge water to a shore side facility. On Aug. 22, 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard held a community outreach meeting aimed at informing the commercial fishing community about the problem of discharging oily bilge water into New Bedford Harbor. Defendant’s representatives did not attend this meeting. Nevertheless, U.S. Coast Guard representatives went to the vessel to meet with the defendant’s representative after the meeting and provided handouts and information that detailed the prohibition of discharging oily bilge water into the sea. Less than a month later, the vessel made the illegal discharge that forms the basis of count one.

In a second incident that forms the basis of count two, on July 3, 2018, the Captain of the F/V Pacific Capes attempted to discharge water from a fish hold into New Bedford Harbor in Fairhaven, Mass. In doing so, the Captain negligently failed to ensure that the valve alignment on the vessel’s bilge manifold was in the proper configuration to prevent the bilge pump from pumping oily bilge water overboard. Oil contamination was discovered alongside the Pacific Capes, as well as approximately 1,000 yards north of the vessel along the beach.

Commercial fishing vessels, such as the F/V Enterprise and F/V Pacific Capes, generate oily bilge water in their machinery spaces. This oily bilge water is the result of fuel, lubrication oil, fresh water, and sea water entering the bilge of the vessel and comingling. These leakages may originate from the main engines, generators, fuel lines, stern-tube packing glands and other piping, valves and machinery in the vessel.

The Department of Justice notes that are two lawful means of disposing of oily bilge water from commercial fishing vessels. First, the oily bilge water may be retained onboard the vessel and then discharged ashore to a properly licensed reception facility. Second, the oily bilge water may be discharged offshore if it has been processed through an Oily Water Separator (OWS) that ensures that the oily bilge water discharged contains no more than 15 parts per million of oil to water.

At all times relevant to the information, says Justice, neither the F/V Enterprise nor the F/V Pacific Capes had an OWS onboard. Therefore, the only lawful manner in which oily bilge water could have been discharged from either vessel was to land the oily bilge water ashore and dispose of it through a properly licensed reception facility.

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