Justice Department: Vessel Pollution Cases Set New Record in 2016

cargo ship
File photo

The U.S. Department of Justice says 2016 was record year for prosecuting shipping companies and crew for illegal discharges from ocean-going vessels in U.S. waters.

At the end of fiscal year 2016, the Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division imposed criminal penalties of more than $363 million in fines and more than 32 years of imprisonment from cases related to intentional discharges of pollutants from vessels.

Often times these cases involve a crew’s use of a so-called “magic pipe” to dump oil-contaminated water overboard, which is almost always followed by an attempt to cover the illegal dumping up by failing to record these discharges in the ship’s oil record book. Charges, which can range from violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships to obstruction of justice or even conspiracy, can carry steep fines for shipping companies and lengthy prison sentences for any crewmembers involved.

In December 2016, the ENRD handed down its largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution after prosecuting Princess Cruise Lines, part of Carnival Corp, on felony charges related to illegal oil dumping at sea and intentional acts to cover it. The company ended up pleading guilty to seven felony charges and has been sentenced to pay a $40 million penalty.

The ENRD said that overall 2016 was one its most successful years in its history. Among its most notable enforcement successes were completing the historic settlement with BP arising from the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; and bringing a Clean Air Act case against Volkswagen.

“I am extremely proud and grateful to have led the men and women of this division through a landmark year in its long history of protecting, defending and preserving the environment and natural resources of this great nation,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden. “Together, we brought justice and an immense restoration effort to the Gulf shores spoiled by Deepwater Horizon, and resolution to automobile consumers and all Americans deprived of clean air by Volkswagen’s deceit. And we ended, fairly and honorably, the vast majority of protracted litigation that has stood in the way of a stronger nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and American Indian tribes.”