Whistleblowing crew calls out MARPOL violations

Photo credit: FotoFlite.

Whistleblowers aboard the product tanker Zao Galaxy informed US Coast Guard marine inspectors onboard of illegal bilge water discharges in February 2019, resulting in the indictment of two shipping companies and one mariner for MARPOL violations. Shipowner FGL Moon Marshall Limited and ship operator Unix Line Pte Ltd (a ship management subsidiary of MOL Chemical Tankers, a Singapore-based subsidiary of MOL Group), and first assistant engineer, Philippine national Gilbert Dela Cruz all face charges that, if convicted, could have serious ramifications.

The case is a particular example of crew members refusing to allow companies to flout regulations or allow blame to be reassigned. As seafarer criminalisation becomes increasingly common, the crew’s stance indicates an attempt to pre-empt such a fate for themselves, being neither complicit in such actions nor willingly bearing any blame should any illegality be uncovered.

The events took place as the vessel, anchored in Richmond, California, was undergoing a PSC inspection as well as a requested Certificate of Compliance (COC) examination after having transported palm oil between the Philippines and California. During this time, a whistleblower passed an inspector a note alleging MARPOL violations. The inspectors thus expanded the scope of their compliance inspection and interviewed the crew further.

This led to information that suggested that the vessel had carried out illegal bilge water discharges to have the bilge tank cleaned and repainted before undergoing inspection. A crew member provided four videos that documented this, showing untreated oily waste being sent overboard through a system of drum containers, flexible pipes, flanges, and the soot eductor. Of these videos, one was time-stamped for 05:13 on 11 February when the ship was just three nautical miles west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The crew member not only revealed the discharge equipment to the inspectors, but they were also able to use it to demonstrate its efficacy in bypassing the oily water separator. When labs tested these components, traces of lubricating oil and fuel were confirmed.

A second crewmember informed the inspectors that first assistant engineer, Philippine national Gilbert Dela Cruz, had ordered them to carry out the alleged discharges and attempted to convince them to withhold information from the coastguard. Dela Cruz oversaw the separator and logging the entries into the vessel’s Oil Record Book. However, prosecutors noted that there were no entries documenting these discharges. The Maritime Executive notes that, per the current indictment, Dela Cruz was also unable to demonstrate the proper operation of the oily water separator to investigators, and there were no ORB entries documenting a separator failure.

If convicted, this will be Unix’s second conviction as the company pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the unlawful discharge of oily waste and false ORB entries in 2003 as well; a factor that could be used to establish a modus operandi by the company.