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Shipping Line Admits to Dumping Waste Oil

Times Staff Writer

One of the world’s largest shipping lines pleaded guilty in Los Angeles on Monday to secretly dumping waste oil from its massive container ships and agreed to pay $25 million, which U.S. officials called the largest fine ever in a federal case involving deliberate pollution from ships.

The plea follows a four-year, five-state criminal probe of shipping giant Evergreen International, which federal attorneys claim sought to save time and money by routinely dumping waste oil into the ocean instead of taking it to shore for disposal.

Under U.S. and international law, ships cannot dump their used oil at sea. Instead, they must send it through a device that separates the oil from water that may be dumped at sea.

But investigators found that at least seven Evergreen ships were equipped with special “magic pipes” that bypassed the separator and sent waste oil into the ocean, U.S. officials said Monday.

Evergreen spokeswoman Barbara Spector Yeninas said Monday that the charges dated from 1998 through 2001, and that the company has not been notified of any violations since then.

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“There were certain employees that ignored the company policy” of environmental compliance, Yeninas said. In the years since, the company has improved crew training and upgraded its pollution control equipment.

The probe began after the March 2001 discovery of a small oil spill fouling the Columbia River, which divides Oregon and Washington.

The Coast Guard had “fingerprinted” oil from the 500-gallon spill near Kalama, Wash., and knew that it matched oil from the nearby Evergreen vessel Ever Group. But investigators couldn’t figure out how it got out.

Two Washington state investigators, convinced that the Ever Group had caused the spill, kept boarding the company’s ships.

In mid-May 2001, on the ship Ever Given, they found what government sleuths would nickname a “magic pipe,” a pipe section that crew members used to bypass the ship’s oil-water separator.

The investigation spread to Charleston, S.C., Newark, N.J., Seattle and Los Angeles as federal and state investigators joined forces to detect such piping on other Evergreen ships.

Evergreen employees tried to hide evidence from U.S. Coast Guard investigators, wiping oil off some pipes and painting others to hide wrench marks, federal officials said. Some engine room operators directed crew members to deny knowledge of the bypass piping if questioned by the Coast Guard, officials said.

Crew members of the Evergreen ship Ever Refine even threw a pipe overboard in the Port of Los Angeles in May 2001 to hide it from Coast Guard investigators, according to court papers

Crews on Evergreen ships also omitted entries from a record book in which they are required by law to record disposal of oil residue, or, in one case in L.A., falsely stated that oily bilge water had been treated as required by law, court papers state.

On Monday, Evergreen pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to 24 felony charges and one misdemeanor brought in Los Angeles, Newark, Portland, Seattle and Charleston.

In an unusual showing, representatives from U.S. attorneys’ offices in those regions joined federal environmental officials and others Monday to announce the plea agreement on a pier overlooking the Evergreen dock in the Port of Los Angeles.

Deputy Atty Gen. James Comey, in a written statement, praised the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section for its efforts, as well as U.S. attorneys from the five districts, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard.

“The deliberate and purposeful pollution of our oceans and America’s waterways must be met with strict enforcement,” Comey said.

The firm had been charged with making false statements, obstructing Coast Guard inspections and failing to maintain accurate records of oil processing.

The $25-million fee, to be split among the five districts, includes $10 million for environmental projects in five states. In the L.A. area, the money will go to Channel Islands National Park.

Last year, Evergreen unsuccessfully sought the contract for operating the Los Angeles port’s first “green” terminal, built with cutting edge technology to reduce air and water pollution.

Even as the federal probe was underway, the Port of Los Angeles in September 2002 gave its first-ever Environmental Excellence Award to Evergreen, calling the company a leader in meeting environmental standards for clean air and water.

Evergreen International, based in Panama, is part of the Evergreen Group of Taiwan.

Under the agreement, four Evergreen companies -- Evergreen International, Evergreen Marine, Evergreen America and Greencompass Marine S.A.--must secure every overboard valve and flange with numbered tags, federal officials said.

Evergreen ships visiting the United States will be audited by an outside firm, which, in turn, will be reviewed by a court-appointed monitor, they said.

Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this report.


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