Almost a year ago, on Feb 19 2011, US Coast Guard inspectors were slipped a note by a Filipino junior engineer as they boarded the Malta flagged MV 'Aquarosa' in Baltimore.
"I have something to till you but secret," Salvatore Lopez wrote, using all capital letters.
That note- and his subsequent testimony- may result in Lopez taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars as a reward for 'whistleblowing.' A US Federal Court has now ordered the owners and operators of the Aquarosa to pay $1.85 million for illegally discharging oily waste and garbage into the ocean as the vessel approached Baltimore; they have also been fine $550,000 that will go to a foundation that works to restore the Chesapeake Bay and other Maryland waterways. This was after the Aquarosa's managers pleaded guilty to four counts of pollution and an attempt to cover up their actions. The Filipino whistleblower, a father with four children, earns about US$27,000 a year. According to US federal law, his share of the fine can be as high as fifty percent.
Lopez had provided investigators with photocopies of the ship's logs and hundreds of pictures that he had taken with his cellphone- over the eight month voyage- of illegal installations and activities aboard the ship. These showed that the Chief Engineer had installed an illegal "magic pipe" that bypassed pollution-control equipment and allowed sludge to be pumped directly overboard at sea. Logbooks and records were subsequently falsified. In addition, senior engineers had ordered the crew to throw oily garbage overboard.
Federal prosecutor Richard Udell says that illegal dumping of oil and garbage at sea is "virtually an epidemic," pointing out that, "without Lopez coming forward, the crimes that occurred aboard the Aquarosa would still be going on."
The court fined Danish owners Aquarosa shipping and Greek managers Efploia Shipping Co. US$925,000 each. In addition, they have each been ordered to pay US$275,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They will also have to make an environmental compliance plan that will be subject to audit by a court-appointed authority. Another consequence: authorities in Malta say that the Aquarosa will be struck off their register.
The two defendants did not dispute Lopez's evidence, but Efploia's lawyer Gregory Listin told the court that Lopez should not be given any reward because he did not inform company managers who would have corrected the problems. Listin said that giving a reward to Lopez would send a wrong message to seamen.
"They can snap their pictures and take their notes knowing that when they get to Baltimore or another US port, they can turn it over and earn the equivalent of 33 years' salary," Listin said. "Eight months on board and 96 days in port and [Lopez] said not a single word until he got to the cash register."
Lopez's lawyer, J. Stephen Simms had this rejoinder to Listin- "If money was the driving factor, where were the other 21 seamen on the Aquarosa?"
Nonetheless, shipowners and managers operating vessels to the US are reported to be getting increasingly concerned about many such high profile whistleblowing incidents in the last few years. Some express the fear that, even if a vessel is following all the rules and doing nothing illegal, a disgruntled employee could- with just a note to the USCG- set off a chain of events that result in huge legal costs and delays to innocent operators and owners.