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Million-dollar reward over cruise line’s ‘magic pipe’

April 27, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Princess Cruise Lines Ltd has been fined USD 40 million (AUD 52.8 million) in the US for concealing major deliberate pollution – and the whistle-blower who dobbed in the cruise line, a young British ship’s engineer, has received USD 1 million as a reward.

The penalty levied against Princess is the largest-ever for crimes involving deliberate vessel pollution – related to illegal dumping overboard of oil contaminated waste and falsification of official logs in order to conceal the discharges, the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami, Benjamin G. Greenberg, confirmed.

The case has massive ramifications for Carnival cruise ship companies trading in the US. Similar illegal practices were found to have taken place on five Princess ships: Caribbean Princess, Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess and Golden Princess.

Caribbean Princess

The sentence was imposed by US District Judge Patricia A. Seitz in Miami.

Judge Seitz also ordered that USD 1 million be awarded to a British engineer, who first reported the illegal discharges to the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which in turn provided the evidence to the US Coast Guard.

The newly hired engineer on the Caribbean Princess reported that a so-called “magic pipe” had been used to illegally discharge oily waste off the coast of England on 23 August 2013 without the use of required pollution prevention equipment.

The evidence gathered by the whistleblower, including photographs of the magic pipe, led to an inspection of the cruise ship both in England and then when it reached New York on 14 September 2013. During each of the separate inspections certain crew members concealed the illegal activity by lying to the authorities in accordance with orders they had received from Caribbean Princess engineering officers.

The sentence imposed by Judge Seitz also requires that Princess remain on probation for a period of five years during which time all of the related Carnival cruise ship companies trading in the US will be required to implement an environmental compliance plan that includes independent audits by an outside company and oversight by a court appointed monitor.

As a result of the government’s investigation, Princess has already taken various corrective actions, including upgrading the oily water separators and oil content monitors on every ship in its fleet and instituting many new policies.

According to papers filed in court, the Caribbean Princess had been making illegal discharges through bypass equipment since 2005, one year after the ship began operations. The August 2013 discharge about 37 kilometres off the coast of England involved 16,000 litres within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

At the same time as the discharge, engineers ran clean seawater through the ship’s monitoring equipment in order to conceal the criminal conduct and create a false digital record for a legitimate discharge.

The case against Princess included illegal practices which were found to have taken place on five Princess ships – Caribbean Princess, Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess and Golden Princess.

One practice was to open a salt water valve when bilge waste was being processed by the oily water separator and oil content monitor. The purpose was to prevent the oil content monitor from going into alarm mode and stopping the overboard discharge. This was done routinely on the Caribbean Princess in 2012 and 2013.

The second practice involved discharges of oily bilge water originating from the overflow of grey-water tanks into the machinery space bilges. This waste was pumped back into the grey-water system rather than being processed as oily bilge waste, and then pumped overboard anytime the ship was more than four nautical miles (about 7.4 kilometres) from land.

As a result, discharges within US waters were likely. None of the discharges were recorded in the oil record books that are required to be maintained aboard the ships.

As set forth in papers filed in court, Princess admitted to the following:

  • After suspecting that the authorities had been informed, senior ship engineers dismantled the bypass pipe and instructed crew members to lie.
  • Following the MCA’s inquiry, the chief engineer held a sham meeting in the engine control room to pretend to look into the allegations while holding up a sign stating: “LA is listening.” The engineers present understood that anything said might be heard by those at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles, California, because the engine control room contained a recording device intended to monitor conversations in the event of an incident.
  • A perceived motive for the crimes was financial – the chief engineer that ordered the dumping off the coast of England told subordinate engineers that it cost too much to properly offload the waste in port and that the shore-side superintendent who he reported to would not want to pay the expense.
  • Grey-water tanks overflowed into the bilges on a routine basis and were pumped back into the grey-water system and then improperly discharged overboard when they were required to be treated as oil contaminated bilge waste. The overflows took place when internal floats in the grey-water collection tanks got stuck due to large amounts of fat, grease and food particles from the galley that drained into the grey-water system. Grey-water tanks overflowed at least once a month and, at times, as frequently as once per week. Princess had no written procedures or training for how internal grey-water spills were supposed to be cleaned up and the problem remained uncorrected for many years.

“Today’s large criminal penalty makes it clear that businesses that operate in our oceans will be held accountable for violating their obligation to safeguard the marine environment,” Acting US Attorney Greenberg stated.

“The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida and our maritime partners are committed to ensuring that all vessel operators adhere to recognised standards in order to protect our open seas and coasts. We will continue to use the US courts to pursue those who circumvent the law for their own personal gain.”

Rear Admiral Scott Buschman, Commander of the US Coast Guard Seventh District, said that “without the courageous act of a junior crewmember to alert authorities to these criminal behaviours of deliberately dumping oil at sea, the global environmental damage caused by the Princess fleet could have been much worse.

“The selflessness of this individual exposed five different ships that embraced a culture of shortcuts and I am pleased at this outcome.”

Edited by Peter Needham

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