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A federal jury in the Northern District of California has convicted a former engineer of aiding and abetting an environmental crime and obstruction of justice in connection with the intentional dumping in February of 2019 of oily bilge water from a commercial tanker.
Gilbert Fajardo Dela Cruz, a Philippine national, was the First Engineer of the Unix Line-operated tanker Zao Galaxy when it traveled from the Philippines to Richmond, California.
The Zao Galaxy, like all such large oil tanker vessels, generates “oily bilge water” when traveling. Typically, oily bilge water is collected, stored, and processed to separate the water from the oil and other wastes using a pollution prevention control device known as an Oil Water Separator and an oil-sensing device known as an Oil Content Meter. Only after passing through an Oily Water Separator that limits the amount of oil in water may oily bilge water be discharged overboard.
On February 11, 2019, United States Coast Guard examiners boarded the tanker after it moored in Richmond, California. During the examination, another crew member passed a note to an examiner requesting a meeting after the inspection so that they could “tell something” about a “magic pipe” and “damage [to the] marine environment.”
After the inspection and a follow-up investigation, Unix ultimately admitted that a ship officer directed crew members to discharge oily bilge water overboard, using a configuration of drums, flexible pipes, and flanges to bypass the vessel’s oil water separator. On February 26, 2020, the company admitted the discharges were done knowingly and that they were not recorded in the Zao Galaxy’s oil record book when it was presented to the U.S. Coast Guard during the vessel’s inspection. Unix pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and was sentenced to pay a fine of $1.65 million, four years of probation, and ordered the company to implement a comprehensive Environmental Compliance Plan.
Even with the company’s admission, Dela Cruz denied responsibility for the environmental crimes and went to trial.
According to the evidence presented at trial, in preparation for a Coast Guard inspection in Richmond, California, Dela Cruz ordered a lower level employee who worked as his assistant to dump oily waste from the ship’s engine room directly into the ocean using a “magic pipe.” Dela Cruz then worked to conceal the dumping by not recording the movement or discharge of oily waste in the ship’s oil record book, which he was responsible for. Dela Cruz ordered that certain pieces of equipment be repainted and the “magic pipe” be hidden to avoid Coast Guard detection. During the Coast Guard’s inspection, Dela Cruz told his assistant who had dumped the oily waste overboard not to throw him “under the bus” and that they needed to get their stories straight for the Coast Guard.
A federal grand jury indicted Dela Cruz on October 24, 2019, charging him with one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, in violation of 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a); one count of obstruction of justice, in violation of 18 U.S.C § 1519, and one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1505.
A trial, the jury concluded Dela Cruz aided and abetted a violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships by causing the captain of the Zao Galaxy to maintain an inaccurate oil record book and that he also committed obstruction of justice, finding him guilty on all three counts.
Dela Cruz faces a maximum of six years’ imprisonment and $250,000 for and three years of supervised release for the pollution count, 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 for the obstruction of justice count, and five years of imprisonment and $250,000 for the obstruction of the agency proceedings count.
The judge ordered Dela Cruz released on bond pending sentencing and scheduled the sentencing for June 11, 2021.
“The crew members of the Zao Galaxy dumped oily bilge water into the ocean and then tried to cover up the environmental damage by submitting bogus paperwork to the United States Coast Guard. As First Assistant Engineer of an ocean-going commercial tankship, Gilbert Dela Cruz was charged with ensuring the crew would follow the rules, not try to circumvent them. This verdict will serve as a reminder that there are stiff penalties for those who try to violate federal and international rules designed to protect our precious natural resources from polluters.”
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