Coast Guard warrant officer pleads guilty in case involving bilge-water discharge

The Coast Guard cutter Rush discharged 2,000 gallons of untreated bilge water into Honolulu Harbor. The waste was routed around the ship’s oil-water separation system. [Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard]

An engine-room officer aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Rush has admitted that he lied to federal officials investigating the discharge of 2,000 gallons of untreated bilge waste from the ship into Honolulu Harbor.

Chief Warrant Officer David G. Williams, 46, pleaded guilty May 1 in U.S. District Court in Hawaii to one count of making a false statement. Williams oversaw the maintenance of the main diesel engines and other machinery in the engine room of the 378-foot cutter. An indictment handed down on Aug. 8, 2007, by a federal grand jury charged that Williams authorized the illegal discharge and obstructed the subsequent investigation.

The “guilty plea stands as notice that the Department of Justice will enforce the nation’s environmental laws in an even-handed and thorough manner,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The investigation began after Hawaii’s Department of Health received an anonymous complaint on March 13, 2006, about bilge waste being pumped directly into Honolulu Harbor without going through Rush’s oil-water separator system (OWS). Vessels at sea use the pollution-control device to separate oil, residue and other pollutants from bilge water before it is discharged.

According to the Justice Department, engineering personnel aboard the ship engaged in “an unusual and abnormal operation and configuration of engine room equipment to pump bilge wastes from the aft bilge to the deep sink and overboard,” thereby bypassing the OWS system. The bilge waste had reached a dangerous point and the dump was necessary to allow Rush to leave port on a training mission, court documents stated.

Agents from the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency interviewed crewmembers in the Main Propulsion Division on the cutter, who confirmed that bilge waste had been illegally discharged into the harbor. CGIS investigators also obtained ship logs, tank level sounding sheets and a pneumatic pump that corroborated the crewmembers’ statements.

When questioned by investigators, Williams denied knowing about the dumping of untreated bilge waste and said he was unaware that waste had bypassed the OWS system. A second charge of obstruction of justice was dropped as part of the plea agreement.

Williams, a 24-year veteran of the Coast Guard, was removed from service on Rush after the investigation began in 2006 but remains on active duty. He faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, plus a term of unsupervised release of up to three years. Sentencing was scheduled for August.

“Direct discharge of machinery space bilge waste is not authorized unless the crew is endangered or the safety of life at sea is otherwise at stake,” said Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, former commander of the Coast Guard’s 14th District, who was recently promoted to assistant commandant for operations in Washington, D.C. “The Coast Guard strives to be a good steward of our environment and we will continue to improve our environmental performance.”

By Professional Mariner Staff