Friday, 7 August 2009

‘Theotokos’ Chief Engineer joins Master and Chief Officer, pleads guilty.

A Greek Chief Engineer pleaded guilty on August 1 in New Orleans for violating environmental laws and making false statements to the U.S. Coast Guard, the US Justice Department announced in a statement. Georgios Stamou, Chief Engineer of the Dominican registered M/V Theotokos, pleaded guilty to one felony violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and one felony violation for making a false statement. He joins the Captain, Panagiotis Lekkas and the Chief Officer Charles P. Posas who pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts in mid July. In fact, the Filipino Chief Officer became the first individual to be charged under a US law designed to combat the introduction of invasive species into national waters.

The Master and Chief Officer have pleaded guilty to four felonies on pollution, ship safety and obstructing a US Coast Guard investigation. When the USCG boarded the 1984 built, 71,242 dwt Theotokos in New Orleans for a Port State Inspection in October 2008, two different violations were found. A summary of the first: The ship’s crew had discovered a two foot long crack in the rudder and reported it verbally to the Owners earlier, in China. Ballast water from the Afterpeak tank was leaking out of this crack. To make matters worse, oil from a fuel tank was found leaking into the Afterpeak. The Master, in clear contravention of Marpol rules, ordered that this tank be pumped overboard at sea. Not only that, he ordered that the sounding pipe to the tank be obstructed, so that if a sounding were taken by PSC inspectors, water would show on the sounding line and not oil. The USCG was not fooled, and the Master and Chief Officer were detained and charged under two different statutes that address invasive species as well as pollution.

In the second violation and according to court documents, C/E Stamou found, at some point after he joined the Theotokos, that the oily water separator had stopped working. Although he spoke with a Superintendent on a voyage from Korea to Panama and informed him that the OWS was not operational, the Chief Engineer also ordered the crew to discharge bilge waste directly overboard knowing fully well that this was against regulations . Additionally, none of the discharges was recorded, as required, in the vessel’s oil record book, which was presented to the USCG at the PSC inspection.

On October 1, 2008, both these infringements were found by the USCG and the crewmembers charged. All three have now pleaded guilty. Hearing for sentencing has been scheduled for Stamou for November 5 this year. Sentencing for both Lekkas and Posas is set for October 14.

The US Port and Waterways Safety Act (PWSA) requires that a vessel operator must report all hazardous conditions to the Coast Guard prior to arrival in a U.S. port. A hazardous condition does not have to be a definitive danger but need only be “a condition that may adversely affect the safety of any vessel, bridge, structure or shore area or the environmental quality of any port, harbour or navigable waterway of the United States”. A high profile campaign has been ongoing for four years, one that has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines levied on defaulting ships. Mariners who face charges as a result are usually found guilty for presenting falsified oil record books to authorities in a US harbour instead of the high seas pollution itself.

In another conviction last month, Spanish company Consultores de Navegacion were ordered to pay a fine of more than $2 million and serve three years of probation for criminal violations related to the overboard discharge of oil contaminated bilge waste on the high seas by the chemical tanker M/T Nautilus.

Says John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, “Illegal pollution from ships continues to be a problem. Failing to properly dispose of bilge waste and lying to Coast Guard inspectors is unacceptable and those who choose to ignore the law face prosecution”.



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