SEWARD, Alaska – (Heidi Zemach for SCN)
A six-member jury in Seward District Court convicted Seward resident Allen Lloyd McCarty, age 62, of three class-A misdemeanor charges of oil pollution, after McCarty dumped oily bilge water (the dirty water that collects at the bottom of a vessel) from the M/V Dutch Harbor into the Seward Small Boat Harbor, off E dock, on January 21st, 2012. McCarty was convicted of one count of Pollution of Water, one count of Oil Pollution, and one count of Failure to Report a Discharge after a two-day trial that ended on November 21, 2013. After a little over an hour of deliberating, the local jury found McCarty guilty of all three criminal charges brought against him.
The ship’s master was fined $5,000 for polluting the land and waters of the State, with half of that sum suspended. He was ordered to pay for $1,060 in restitution for the coast guard’s investigation. McCarty received 50 hours of community work service for not reporting the spill. The vessel’s insurance company paid the city harbor department’s bills for the immediate cleanup.
The dumping of bilges is a major source of marine pollution as bilges tend to collect engine oil, fuel, anti-freeze, transmission fluid, and other pollutants that can affect marine ecosystems and marine organisms, such as fish, which are consumed by many Alaskans. About a cup of contaminated substance in the bilge water was collected in the water near the M/V Dutch Harbor, and about a gallon of estimated contamination was collected from bilgewater on ice near the vessel. It contained light fuel oil and lubricating oil. The spill was discovered by Seward Small Boat Harbor staff and then sampled and matched to the M/V Dutch Harbor’s own bilge by United States Coast Guard (USCG) pollution responders and the USCG Marine Safety Lab.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Crimes Unit (ECU) was part of the joint investigation which brought about the conviction. The ECU investigates criminal violations of Alaska statutes and regulations for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
On the same day as the oily bilge water was discovered coming from the M/V Dutch Harbor, thousands of residents and visitors filled Seward and its Small Boat Harbor for the annual Polar Bear Plunge to raise funds for Cancer research. The U.S. Coast Guard Anchorage Division happened to be in town fielding a team on that day, and was on hand to look into the newly-reported oil spill.
During sentencing Magistrate Judge George Peck called McCarty’s behavior “egregious” and “willful,” and said it demonstrated an “arrogance about the law.”
McCarty initially denied that the oil sheen had come from the M/V Dutch Harbor. Earlier, harbor staff had notified him that the vessel had been seen listing in the water. Once on board, investigators also discovered a bilge pump assembly that was arranged in such a way that bilge water could be drained into a nearby sink, which drained overboard or discharged directly overboard through a window via a garden hose, according to court charging documents. McCarty countered that the pump was arranged that way merely for emergencies, and that a discharge was not possible because the hose was frozen. It wasn’t however, USCG investigators discovered.
The fact that the vessel had been seen and reported to the owner as listing significantly in the water, came out at various times during the course of the trial, but its connection or relevance to the case of polluting at hand was not clearly established. Nor, apparently were claims by the defense that the dock was covered in snow at the time, and that there was ice around, and on the vessel, a possible explanation for its listing.
Seward is one of three certified Alaska Clean Harbors in the state that have instituted, or pledged to institute best management practices in a proactive approach to pollution prevention and protection of Alaska’s marine environment.
“The City is pleased with the court’s decision in this case,” said Seward Harbormaster Mack Funk. “The critical message to boaters is that oil spills, especially those on the water, need to be reported. The City harbor department is ready, willing, and able to assist its customers whenever problems may arise.”
The small boat harbor experiences spills every year, but they can’t track down the source of the spills about 90 percent of the time. This case was unusual in that investigators were able to conclusively track it down to the vessel responsible, and because the vessel’s master had not reported the spill, which all vessel operators are required to do.
“The US Coast Guard and the state Department of Environmental Conservation built a strong case with the help of three harbor workers. The incident took place in January 2012. Although the matter took a while to conclude, this decision sets a strong precedent that oil spills- even oily bilge water cannot be treated lightly,” Funk added.
The harbor’s oil recycling center is available to all vessel owners or operators who want to safely and effectively rid their bilge water of polluted substances. Bilge diapers which float in the bilge and absorb oily substances can be recycled there, and oil-soaked rags used to absorb oil can also be recycled and incinerated there. Alternately, vessel owners also can pump out their bilge water into barrels, and remove them from the docks.
What they can’t do legally, however, is pump it out into the harbor, into the bay or the ocean.
There’s no doubt that more vessel owners dump their bilge illegally, and that most get away with it, said Assistant Attorney General Carole Holley.
“Finding and locating perpetrators of bilge dumping is extremely difficult,” she said. This is actually the only case of bilge dumping that she had ever prosecuted. These environmental crime cases are prosecuted in part to prevent the particular operator from doing it again, but also to deter others from doing so, and ultimately to protect the resources, she said.
“The public has a right to know that it’s a crime to dump your bilge,” Holley said. She noted that there could have been up to a couple of hundred gallons of bilge water involved, and that the contents contained in bilge can be quite toxic to marine life and to the fish we eat. She also noted that McCarty did not receive the maximum sentence available to the courts.
For information about the ECU, or to report an environmental crime the public may contact the ECU by phone, via email, or on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website.