Malta-flagged ship owners disgraced after crewman turns whistleblower
Friday, 10 February 2012 | 00:00
A Filippino crewman on board a Malta-flagged freighter, stands to be handsomely compensated by a US court for serving as a whistleblower, revealing that the ship had illegally dumped oily waste and garbage into the sea as it approached Baltimore.
Seaman Salvatore Lopez had slipped a note to US Coast Guard inspectors as they boarded the MV Aquarosa, reading: "I have something to tell you, but in secret."
The secret - that the ship had illegally dumped oily waste and garbage into the ocean - resulted in the owners and operators of the MV Aquarosa fined US$1.85 million in a federal court last week and also ordered to pay US$550,000 to a foundation to help restore the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore.
The Filippino whistleblower - a seaman who supports a wife and four children on US$27,000 a year - stands to earn a six-figure reward for his efforts, including gathering copies of the ship's logs and snapping hundreds of pictures of illegal onboard activities with his cell phone.
A decision on the size of his reward is pending; federal law says the amount can be as much as half the fine.
"Without Lopez coming forward, the crimes that occurred aboard the Aquarosa would still be going on," said US federal prosecutor Richard Udell, who called illegal ocean dumping "virtually an epidemic."
The case is the latest in a series of high-profile pollution enforcement efforts in the US sparked by whistle-blowers and carried out by Baltimore's Coast Guard investigators and the Justice Department.
Efploia Shipping Co., the operator of the vessel, and owners Aquarosa Shipping, were each fined US$925,000. In addition, the defendants were each ordered to perform community service by writing checks for US$275,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for non-profit projects aimed at restoring Baltimore's Chesapeake Bay and other Maryland waterways.
The two companies have agreed to prepare an environmental compliance plan that will be reviewed and audited by a court-appointed monitor.
Gregory Listin, a lawyer for Efploia, told US District Judge Marvin Garbis that in pleading guilty to four counts of polluting and attempting to cover up the actions, his client did not dispute any of the evidence gathered by Lopez.
But Listin argued that Lopez does not deserve any reward money because he should have alerted company officials - who - he claimed, would have corrected the problems. Listin said a reward would send a message to other seamen that whistleblowing can be lucrative.
"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, replied, "If money was the driving factor, where were the other 21 seamen on the Aquarosa?"
The 623-foot ship was built in China in 2010. Owned by Aquarosa Shipping, a Danish company, it is registered in Malta and run by a Greek company. The Aquarosa arrived from Europe on February 19, 2011 - its first visit to Baltimore.
Members of the Coast Guard's inspection team boarded the ship because it was operating with provisional safety and environmental certificates. As they spoke to the engineering staff, a tall, soft-spoken man handed them a note, court documents showed.
Within days, Lopez turned over to Coast Guard investigators copies of the ship's logs over the eight-month voyage and a cell phone containing more than 300 photos of illegal onboard activities, court documents show.
Investigators found that the ship's senior engineers had devised a "magic pipe" that allowed them to bypass pollution-control devices and discharge waste oil and bilge sludge into the ocean undetected, court records showed. The records also showed that engineers then falsified logs to hide the fact and that top engineers ordered crewmen to dump oily garbage overboard.
Transport Malta, which handles the Malta Ship Register is reportedly moving to strike-off the ship from the register, stripping it off its Malta flag.
Source: Malta Today