Tanker crewman convicted in US for role in dumping of oily bilge in international waters

Zao Galaxy (Photo: Unix Line)

A federal jury in Oakland, California, has convicted one individual of aiding and abetting an environmental crime and obstruction of justice in connection with the intentional dumping of oily bilge water from a commercial tanker in February 2019, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a recent statement.

Gilbert Dela Cruz, 38, a Filipino national, was the first engineer of Zao Galaxy, an ocean-going oil tankship. In January 2019, when the ship traveled from the Philippines to Richmond, California, it was operated by Mr Dela Cruz’s employer, Singapore-based Unix Line.

The DOJ said that Zao Galaxy, like all such large oil tanker vessels, generates “oily bilge water” when traveling.

Typically, oily bilge water is collected, stored, and processed to separate the water from the oil and other wastes using a pollution prevention control device known as an oil water separator and an oil-sensing device known as an oil content meter. Only after passing through an oily water separator that limits the amount of oil in water may oily bilge water be discharged overboard.

On February 11, 2019, US Coast Guard examiners boarded Zao Galaxy while it was moored in Richmond to conduct an examination. During the examination, a crewmember passed a note to an examiner requesting a meeting after the inspection so that the crewmember could “tell something” about a “magic pipe” and “damage [to the] marine environment.”

After the inspection and a follow-up investigation, Unix ultimately admitted that a ship officer directed crewmembers to discharge oily bilge water overboard, using a configuration of drums, flexible pipes, and flanges to bypass the vessel’s oil water separator.

On February 26, 2020, the company admitted the discharges were done knowingly and that they were not recorded in the vessel’s oil record book when it was presented to the US Coast Guard during the vessel’s inspection. Unix pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.

On March 20, 2020, a judge sentenced Unix to pay a fine of US$1.65 million, placed Unix on probation for a period of four years, and ordered the company to implement a comprehensive environmental compliance plan as a special condition of probation.

The DOJ added that, notwithstanding these admissions, Mr Dela Cruz denied responsibility for the environmental crimes and went to trial. In finding Mr Dela Cruz guilty, the jury concluded that he aided and abetted a violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships by causing Zao Galaxy‘s captain to maintain an inaccurate oil record book and that he also committed obstruction of justice.

According to the evidence presented at trial, in preparation for a coast guard inspection in Richmond, California, Mr Dela Cruz ordered a lower level employee who worked as his assistant to dump oily waste from the ship’s engine room directly into the ocean using a “magic pipe.”

Mr Dela Cruz then worked to conceal the dumping by not recording the movement or discharge of oily waste in the ship’s oil record book, which he was responsible for. The defendant then ordered that certain pieces of equipment be repainted and the “magic pipe” be hidden to avoid coast guard detection.

During the coast guard’s inspection, Mr Dela Cruz told his assistant who had dumped the oily waste overboard not to throw him “under the bus” and that they needed to get their stories straight for the coast guard.

A federal grand jury indicted Mr Dela Cruz on October 24, 2019, charging him with one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, in violation of 33 U.S.C. § 1908(a); one count of obstruction of justice, in violation of 18 U.S.C § 1519, and one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1505. The jury found Mr Dela Cruz guilty of all three counts.

The defendant faces a maximum of six years’ imprisonment and a fine of US$250,000 for and three years of supervised release for the pollution count, 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of US$250,000 for the obstruction of justice count, and five years of imprisonment and a fine of US$250,000 for the obstruction of the agency proceedings count.

The court may also order an additional term of supervised release, restitution, and fines; however, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court only after consideration of the US Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

A judge ordered Mr Dela Cruz released on bond pending sentencing and scheduled the sentencing for June 11, 2021, at 09:30 local time.

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