NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, December 11, 2009 (ENS) – Polembros Shipping Ltd., a Greek ship management company, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in New Orleans to pay a $2.7 million criminal fine for violating anti-pollution laws, ship safety laws, and making false statements during a U.S. Coast Guard investigation of the cargo ship M/V Theotokos.

The investigation into the activities aboard the M/V Theotokos led to the first criminal prosecutions under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990. This law established a national ballast water control program in an attempt to prevent invasive aquatic species from entering U.S. waters.

Polembros pleaded guilty on September 30 to violating the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act by failing to maintain accurate ballast water records.

The company also pleaded guilty to two violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships – one in connection with failing to maintain an accurate oil record book for the M/V Theotokos, and the other concerning the carrying of fuel oil in a tank forward of the collision barrier.

The company also pleaded guilty to violating the Ports of Waterways Safety Act by failing to report hazardous condition of a crack on the rudder stem of the ship, and making false statements by concealing the fact that fuel oil was leaking into the forepeak ballast tank.

The court ordered that all ships owned or managed by Polembros, currently 20 vessels, will be barred from entering U.S. ports and territorial waters for three years as a condition of the probation imposed by the court.

Polembros was ordered to pay a separate $100,000 community service payment to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a sub-unit of Smithsonian Institute.

The money will be used to research and mitigate the effects of marine invasive species suspected to be transported in ballast waters of ocean-going vessels. Invasive species can threaten native species and damage the ecosystems of the United States.

Additionally, the Court awarded a total of $540,000 to nine former crew members of the Theotokos who cooperated in the investigation and gave information that led to the guilty plea and conviction of Polembros. Congress granted courts the power to award a “whistleblower award” for up to one-half of any criminal fine imposed under the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.

“I want to express my appreciation to the nine crew members of the Theotokos for their extensive cooperation in this investigation,” said Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “The message should be clear that this office, in conjunction with its law enforcement partners, will continue to vigorously prosecute companies that pollute our marine environment.”

Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said, “The industry should take notice that the Justice Department and our investigative counterparts will continue to prosecute and seek penalties for those who violate our nation’s environmental laws.”

“The terms of probation and penalties imposed by the court will prevent the company from putting the health of the territorial ports and waterways of the United States at risk while the company benefits from economic activity in our nation’s waters,” Moreno said.

Additionally, on October 15, Panagiotis Lekkas, the master and highest ranking officer aboard the ship, was sentenced to 10 months confinement, a $4,000 fine, and a three year ban on entering U.S. ports and territorial waters, for his role in the obstruction of justice, as well as violations of environmental and ship safety laws.

On October 1, Charles Posas, the vessel’s chief officer, was sentenced to probation and a three year ban from U.S. ports and territorial waters for one count of false statement and one count of violating the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act.

In another related case, on November 5, the chief engineer Georgios Stamou, was sentenced to pay a $15,000 fine and a term of probation including a five year ban on entering U.S. ports and territorial waters, after pleading guilty to one felony violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and one felony violation for making a false statement.

Engine room operations on board large oceangoing vessels such as the M/V Theotokos generate oil-contaminated bilge waste. International and U.S. law prohibit the discharge of bilge waste containing more than 15 parts per million of oil without treatment by an oily water separator – a required pollution prevention device.

At some point during Stamou’s employment on board the vessel, the oil water separator ceased functioning. During a voyage from Korea to Panama, Stamou spoke with a company representative and notified him that there was a problem with the oily water separator. Stamou did not utilize the oil water separator and directed crewmembers to discharge bilge waste that had accumulated during regular operation of the ship directly into the sea.

On October 1, 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the Theotokos at Kenner Bend Anchorage in Louisiana for a port state control inspection to ascertain its compliance with health, safety, and anti-pollution protocols. At that time, Stamou presented the false oil record book to Coast Guard inspectors.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.