Another “Magic Pipe” Down the Drain: Whistleblower Tips Lead to Guilty Plea in Ocean Dumping Case
Whistleblowers and an alert Coast Guard examiner exposed the illegal ocean-dumping of unfiltered bilge water by Singapore shipping company Unix Line PTE. The company pleaded guilty to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) after a conscientious crew member slipped a note reading “magic pipe” and “damage marine environment” to the examiner inspecting the ship M/T Zao Galaxy. Another crew member provided cell-phone video of four overboard discharges of oily waste, one of which was only three nautical miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oily bilge water must filter through a pollution device that automatically monitors and limits oil content before draining into the sea. The criminal indictment describes an onboard scheme to bypass pollution control through a “magic pipe” configuration involving “drum containers, flexible pipes, flanges, and the soot eductor.”
By law, all oil discharges must be documented in the Oil Record Book. Not only did the Zao Galaxy defendants fail to document the four illegal dumping events, but First Assistant Engineer Gilbert Fajardo Dela Cruz allegedly ordered the discharges to occur only under cover of darkness and further ordered the cleaning and repainting of incriminating areas in anticipation of inspection. Dela Cruz also allegedly pressured crew members to lie to the Coast Guard.
The whistleblowers’ revelations led to Unix Line’s guilty plea and admission that it knowingly failed to document the illegal discharge in the oil book. Unix had pleaded guilty to charges for similar conduct in 2003 in Washington state. Charges for violation of the APPS and obstruction of justice remain pending against FGL Moon, the vessel’s owner, and Dela Cruz.
Under the APPS, the Zao Galaxy whistleblowers, even if not U.S. nationals, might receive up to one-half of any assessed fine, as explained by CC attorneys Max Voldman and Mary Inman in Maritime Executive. APPS whistleblower awards recognize that numerous incidents of ocean pollution remain undetected unless witnesses come forward.
The DOJ and Coast Guard have little patience for illegal “magic pipe” schemes, which unfortunately are not uncommon. In addition to deprioritizing pollution concerns, officers and crew may feel pressured by expediency, business pressures, and operational problems into bypassing the pollution controls. In 2016, Princess Cruises paid a $40M fine for its magic pipe abuses, and in 2018 German company MST Mineralien Schiffahrt Spedition und Transport, which had been on probation for magic pipe discharges in the Great Lakes, pleaded guilty in Maine to similar oily bilge dumping. In 2017, a federal jury in South Carolina convicted two Chief Engineers on TV Green Sky for pollution from a magic pipe, pictured here:
Conscientious mariners and others in the industry can help to fight against harm to ocean wildlife, fragile coral reefs, and ecosystems. The APPS is one of a number of environmental laws with whistleblower provisions that encourage the exposure of environmental abuse. If you know about environmental fraud and would like to know if it falls within a whistleblower program, please contact us.
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