LOS ANGELES – A Panamanian shipping line has pleaded guilty to more than two dozen counts of illegal waste dumping around the United States (search) and was ordered to pay $25 million in one of the largest fines ever imposed on an ocean polluter.
Evergreen International (search), one of the world's largest shipping lines, concealed the discharge of waste oil, obstructed Coast Guard inspections and altered records for three years ending in 2001, federal officials said. The company entered its plea Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to 24 felony counts and one misdemeanor.
U.S. attorneys from five jurisdictions affected by the pollution — Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Newark, New Jersey and Charleston, S.C. — hailed the plea agreement as a major victory in the fight against shipping companies trying to skirt the law.
"We take these crimes very seriously and if they won't police themselves, we will do it for them," Christopher Christie, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, said on a dock across from Evergreen's shipping yard in San Pedro, California (search). "You can't lie to the federal government with impunity and get away with it."
Attorneys for Evergreen said the company has been in compliance for the past four years and decided to enter a plea agreement to move forward.
"To make us the poster child for environmental violations years later is ridiculous," attorney Eric Dubelier said. "We've taken responsibility for what we did so we can go about our business."
U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. ordered Evergreen to pay the five districts $15 million that they will split equally. The remaining $10 million will fund environmental community service projects in each area.
The shipping line must also implement an environmental plan for their vessels docked in U.S. ports.
It is one of the largest fines ever imposed on a shipping line in a dumping case. In 1999, Royal Caribbean cruise lines paid $27 million in two cases after acknowledging it had polluted repeatedly and lied to the Coast Guard about it.
In Evergreen's case, federal authorities said they began their investigation in March 2001 after they found about 500 gallons of oil in the Columbia River near Kalama, Washington. They were able to trace the spill to one of Evergreen's ships.
The violations led to a thorough review of Evergreen's policies. Federal officials said ship workers would use a pipe to bypass a pollution prevention device and allow them to dump sludge into the ocean — often at night — without it being treated.
Dubelier said the violations occurred on only seven of Evergreen's 140 ships.
Evergreen paid $4 million to clean up more than 12,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from a steamship that accidentally struck a pipe on a South Carolina river in 2002. The company assumed the costs of the cleanup after a crew discovered a crack in the 991-foot Evergreen Ever Reach.