Tanker owner, operator and chief engineer guilty in pollution case

oil tanker underway

A federal jury has found three defendants guilty of violating pollution laws with the 167,294 dwt Liberian-flag tanker M/T Evridiki, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). 

The Wilmington, Delaware, jury convicted Nikolaos Vastardis, Evridiki Navigation Inc. and Liquimar Tankers Management Services Inc. on Dec. 19.

Vastardis was chief engineer of the 899-foot oil tanker owned by Evridiki Navigation and operated by Liquimar Tankers Management Services. The defendants believe the government overreached its jurisdiction and plan an appeal, Bruce Merrill, an attorney for Vastardis, told American Shipper/FreightWaves on Dec. 23.

They were found guilty of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, falsifying ship’s documents, obstructing a U.S. Coast Guard inspection and making false statements to U.S. Coast Guard inspectors.

“The crimes were committed in order to conceal Vastardis’ deliberate bypassing of required pollution prevention equipment in order to illegally discharge oil-contaminated bilge waste overboard,” according to a statement from the DOJ.

After the tanker arrived at Big Stone Anchorage in Delaware Bay on March 10, 2019, the ship underwent a U.S. Coast Guard inspection. The jury found that during the inspection, Evridiki, Liquimar and Vastardis tried to deceive Coast Guard inspectors regarding the use of the ship’s oily water separator (OWS), a required pollution prevention device.

Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), only bilge waste containing less than 15 parts per million (ppm) oil can be discharged overboard and must be first run through an OWS and oil content meter (OCM) to ensure that no waste containing more than 15 ppm oil is discharged.

“During the Coast Guard inspection, Vastardis operated the equipment with unmonitored valves that trapped fresh water inside the OCM’s sample line so that its oil sensor registered zero ppm instead of what was really being discharged overboard,” according to the government. “However, historic OCM data recovered during the inspection proved that the OCM was being tricked and bypassed. When the Coast Guard opened the Evridiki’s OWS, they found it was fouled with copious amounts of oil and soot.”

The four felony counts of which each defendant was convicted included knowingly failing to maintain an accurate oil record book, in violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships;  obstruction of justice; obstruction of the Coast Guard’s inspection; and making a materially false statement to the Coast Guard concerning how the OWS was operated at sea, according to the DOJ.

Before the trial, attorneys for the defendants had unsuccessfully argued that the indictment should have been dismissed.

“This was a stretch by the government to file criminal charges for actions that occur out on the high seas where they would have no jurisdiction,” Merrill said.

In a memorandum filed in July, he and the attorney for the owner and operator argued the United States was ignoring a “comprehensive international enforcement regime predicated on cooperation by member nations, and replacement with the government’s own self-serving interpretation of the statutes and regulations, in an attempt to exercise jurisdiction and control over all vessels in the world.”

They said the alleged crimes “indisputably stem from alleged conduct and events which occurred on the high seas, beyond the jurisdiction of the United States” and that the government “continues to push the boundaries of alleged foreign national and corporate criminal liability for events with only the thinnest connection to the United States.”

“There is no dispute that the United States has become well-known throughout the world for being disproportionately heavy-handed in targeting foreign owners and managers of foreign-flagged vessels and for holding foreign crew members as hostages for events occurring outside the jurisdiction of the United States,” they added. “No other country in the world exercises the same punitive and regressive enforcement regime for the alleged conduct which occurred onboard the M/T Evridiki, i.e. causing the knowing failure to maintain an accurate Oil Record Book while in U.S. waters (and associated charges).”

Attorneys for the defendants argued that mere possession of an alleged inaccurate or incomplete oil record book within the United States or the failure to maintain an accurate oil record book is not a crime against the United States.

The defendants also argued that Vastardis was interviewed without the aid of an interpreter and was unsuccessful in communicating to the Coast Guard in English.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Andrews for the District of Delaware presided over the trial and will conduct sentencing on a date to be determined.