Greek companies plead guilty to illegally discharging oil in US waters

Nov 30 2018

In a federal court in Beaumont, Texas, two Greek shipping companies, Avin International, and Nicos IV Special Maritime Enterprises, pleaded guilty this week to charges stemming from several discharges of oil into Texan waters.

According to the US Department of Justice, the spills emanated from the 2002-built MR ‘Nicos IV’.


Avin International was the operator and Nicos IV Special Maritime Enterprises was the owner of the MR - a Greek-flagged vessel. The MR’s Master, Rafail-Thomas Tsoumakos, and the vessel’s Chief Officer, Alexios Thomopoulos, also pleaded guilty to making material false statements to members of the US Coast Guard during the investigation into the discharges.


Both companies pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding, as well as one count of failure to report discharge of oil under the US Clean Water Act, and three counts of negligent discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act.


Under a plea agreement, the companies will pay a $4 mill criminal fine and serve a four-year term of probation, during which vessels operated by the companies will be required to implement an environmental compliance plan, including inspections by an independent auditor.


Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos both pleaded guilty to one count of making a material false statement and face up to five years in prison when sentenced, a date for which had not been set by the end of this week.


“The international ports of Houston and Port Arthur are no one’s dumping ground,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the US Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Vessel operators coming to the US must not foul American waterways. Those who knowingly discharge their waste and lie to the Coast Guard to dodge their legal responsibilities under federal law are on notice that our investigators and prosecutors stand ready to hold them accountable.”


“We take the violation of our environmental protection laws seriously,” said US Attorney Joseph D Brown for the Eastern District of Texas. “We expect shipping and oil companies to do the same. They can do terrible damage to our coastlines and wildlife, and we all have to make sure that does not happen.”


“The Coast Guard Investigative Service will continue to vigorously investigate and hold accountable individuals and corporations who illegally discharge pollutants into the marine environment,” said Brian Jeanfreau, Special Agent-In-Charge of the USCG’s Investigative Service, Gulf Region.


According to documents filed in court, the ‘Nicos IV’ was equipped with a segregated ballast system, a connected series of tanks used to control the trim and list of the vessel by taking on or discharging water, the latter involving an operation called de-ballasting.


At some point prior to 6th July, 2017, the MR’s ballast system became contaminated with oil and that oil was discharged twice from the vessel into the Port of Houston on 6th and 7th July, 2017, during de-ballasting operations.


Both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos were informed of the discharges. Tsoumakos failed to report the discharges as required under the Clean Water Act. Neither discharge was recorded in the vessel’s oil record book, as required under MARPOL and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.


After leaving Houston, en route to Port Arthur, Texas, the deck crew was instructed to open the ballast tanks, and oil was observed in several of the tanks. After arriving in Port Arthur, additional oil began bubbling up next to the vessel, causing a report to the USCG.


During the ensuing investigation, both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos lied to the USCG, stating, among other things, that they had not been aware of the oil in the ballast system until after the discharge in Port Arthur, and that they believed that the oil in the ballast tanks had entered them when the vessel took on ballast water in Port Arthur.


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