Princess Cruises fined $40M for ocean pollution, crew's cover-up

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The Caribbean Princess' chief engineer and senior first engineer ordered a cover-up of the use of a bypass pipe to illegally discharge oily waste, the DOJ said.
The Caribbean Princess' chief engineer and senior first engineer ordered a cover-up of the use of a bypass pipe to illegally discharge oily waste, the DOJ said.

Princess Cruises will pay a $40 million fine and plead guilty to seven felony counts stemming from a crew intentionally polluting water, then trying to cover it up.

The fine resulted from an extensive government investigation that uncovered an elaborate scheme to discharge oily waste into the sea and then whitewash the evidence, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said.

The $40 million criminal penalty, the largest-ever involving deliberate vessel pollution, is being assessed on the company for charges related to illegal dumping from the 3,192-passenger Caribbean Princess. 

In a statement, Princess said, "We discovered that some of our employees intentionally violated our policies and broke environmental law when they bypassed our bilge water treatment system and discharged untreated bilge water into the ocean. ... We believe these actions were taken to save time and that those involved thought they were saving the company money, but since they violated our policies and the law, it was not savings we incentivized, directed nor approved."

The company added: "The senior officers involved have been fired."

The U.S. government launched an investigation into the matter after it was notified by the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency about an engineer on the Caribbean Princess who had illegally discharged oily waste off the coast of England on Aug. 23, 2013.

According to the DOJ, the whistleblowing engineer quit when the ship reached Southampton, England. The chief engineer and senior first engineer then ordered a cover-up, including removal of the pipe used to discharge the oily waste, and directed subordinates to lie.

British maritime authorities shared with the U.S. Coast Guard before-and-after photos of the bypass pipe used for the oily discharge, proving its disappearance. In response, the Coast Guard conducted an examination of the Caribbean Princess when it arrived in New York on Sept. 14, 2013. 

According to court papers cited by the DOJ, the Caribbean Princess had been making illegal discharges through bypass equipment since 2005, one year after the ship entered service. The discharge incident on Aug. 26, 2013 involved approximately 4,227 gallons of oily waste 23 miles off the coast of England. At that time, engineers simultaneously ran clean seawater through the ship's overboard equipment in order to create a false digital record for a legitimate discharge.

The investigation also uncovered two other illegal practices that were taking place on the Caribbean Princess and four other Princess ships: Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess and Golden Princess. One was to open a salt-water valve when bilge waste was being processed by the oily-water separator and oil-content monitor in order to prevent the oil content monitor from alarming and stopping the overboard discharge, something that was done on the Caribbean Princess in 2012 and 2013, according to the DOJ.

The second practice involved discharges of oily bilge water originating from the overflow of graywater tanks into the machinery space bilges. This waste was pumped back into the graywater system rather than being processed as oily bilge waste. Neither of these practices was truthfully recorded in the oil record book as required.

Princess said the company has taken a number of steps to correct all of these actions over the past three years.

"We completely restructured our fleet operations department including hiring new leadership," the company stated. "We have also increased the scope and frequency of our environmental compliance training and have invested millions of dollars to upgrade our equipment to the highest international standard."

For example, the DOJ said Princess has worked to upgrade the oily-water separators and oil-content monitors on every ship in its fleet.  

"We are deeply disappointed that our employees independently took these actions," Princess said in an online statement. "And it became apparent through the investigation that although we had policies and procedures in place, oversight of environmental compliance was inadequate."

The plea agreement was announced Thursday by Assistant Attorney General John Cruden for the DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division and by U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer for the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

As part of the plea deal, Princess' parent company, Carnival Corp., will be under a court-supervised environmental compliance program for five years, requiring independent audits of its vessels by an outside entity and by a court-appointed monitor.

"Today's case should send a powerful message to other companies that the U.S. government will continue to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for deliberate ocean dumping that endangers the countless animals, marine life and humans who rely on clean water to survive," Ferrer said.

Princess said that after it learned of the illegal activity, the cruise line fired the Caribbean Princess' chief engineer and a first engineer.

In addition, in early 2014, Carnival Corp. proactively instituted a management reorganization that created the position of chief maritime officer, which was filled by former U.S. Navy vice admiral William Burke. His role has C-suite responsibility accountable for developing, maintaining and oversight of health, environmental, safety and security policies and compliance.

At the brand level, Princess Cruises has new fleet operations and technical oversight by an executive vice president for fleet operations., a role filled by former Coast Guard rear admiral Keith Taylor.

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