On Monday, a federal jury in Oakland convicted the former first engineer of the tanker Zao Galaxy of ordering the discharge of untreated oily water and attempting to cover it up.
Gilbert Fajardo Dela Cruz, 38, was the first engineer of the product tanker Zao Galaxy during a voyage from the Philippines to Richmond, California in February 2019. U.S. Coast Guard port state control inspectors boarded the vessel upon its arrival, and during the examination, a crewmember passed a note to an inspector that read “magic pipe” and “damage marine environment.” After further inspection and a follow-up investigation, vessel operator Unix Line admitted that an officer aboard the vessel ordered a crewmember to use an improvised system of drums, hoses and flanges to bypass the oily water separator (OWS) and discharge untreated oily waste over the side. (One of the discharges allegedly occurred within three miles of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge as Zao Galaxy approached San Francisco Bay, according to the Coast Guard.)
Unix Line also admitted that the discharges were intentional and were not recorded in the oil record book, and it pleaded guilty to one count of violating MARPOL. A federal judge sentenced Unix to a fine of $1.65 million and a four-year term of probation.
Dela Cruz denied responsibility for the discharge, but prosecutors presented evidence that he had ordered his assistant to carry it out and then conceal the equipment, including repainting some of it to disguise its purpose. In addition, the vessel’s chief engineer testified that Dela Cruz ordered the assistant to keep it a secret and say nothing to the Coast Guard.
The jury convicted Dela Cruz on one count of violating MARPOL; one count of obstruction of justice; and one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding. The combined maximum prison sentence for these crimes would amount to 31 years if served in succession, along with a combined fine of $750,000.
The ship’s owner, holding company FGL Moon Marshall Limited, still faces charges in the ongoing trial.
So-called “magic pipe” discharges are not uncommon in international shipping, as they are the least-cost method of resolving oily water separator failures while under way. In most localities, the penalty for a “magic pipe” oil record book discrepancy amounts to a fine or a PSC deficiency record, but in the United States it is treated as a felony crime. If a crewmember initiates a MARPOL case as a whistleblower, they may be eligible for a reward totaling as much as half the amount of the fine if the vessel operator is convicted.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of News2Sea.
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