ConocoPhillips to pay $2.5 million in fines after failing to record spill from tanker

A division of ConocoPhillips will pay $2.5 million in penalties after one of its tanker ships discharged oily sludge into the Pacific Ocean and the ship’s officers attempted to keep the spill a secret.

One whistle-blowing member of the crew who reported the incident to the Coast Guard was awarded $250,000 out of that fine. The case was featured in an investigative report televised nationally on PBS.

U.S. authorities said the Polar Discovery crew accidentally spilled oily sludge on the ship’s deck and into the ocean on Jan. 16, 2004. Instead of reporting the accident in the ship’s log, the crew spent at least two days feverishly attempting to clean up the mess.

Polar Tankers Inc. pleaded guilty to failure to properly maintain an oil record book. The Houston-based company agreed to pay a $500,000 criminal fine and $2 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund environmental projects along Alaska’s coast. The agreement was announced Oct. 23 in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

“Today’s plea and sentence show that the government will not tolerate the disregard of these laws and that violators will be held accountable,” said Granta Nakayama, assistant administrator for the EPA enforcement and compliance assurance program. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland said the agreement to the maximum fine sends “a strong message that proper record-keeping is important.”

After spilling the sludge, Polar Discovery’s crew mobilized a cleanup effort to ensure that no one noticed any oil stains on the side of the ship when it arrived at its next port of call, Honolulu. Federal prosecutors said they probably never would have learned of the incident had a member of the crew not reported it four months later.

Whistle-blower Jim Legg — a veteran engineman aboard Polar Discovery — and other witnesses eventually told the Coast Guard that human carelessness caused the spill during an attempt to move the sludge from the engine room.

“Somebody left a valve open,” Legg, 38, told Professional Mariner. “They thought they were transferring the oily sludge to a cargo tank on deck, but it was just going all over the deck. There should have been somebody on deck keeping an eye on that transfer operation.”

Before anyone recognized the mistake, the oily substance was spraying through the air. “I came down and there was oil all over the deck,” Legg said. “It was just blowing all over, and the oil was going down the scupper drain, and it was blowing out into the ocean, all the way down the side of the ship.”

When Coast Guard investigators eventually interviewed members of the crew, they confirmed details of a multiday operation in which the ship’s officers tried a variety of strategies to clean the oil from the ship. The tools included fire hoses, window washers, power washers and a crane. They even modified a wishbone rig to lower people over the side of the ship for scrubbing duty.

Legg, who had a small video camera aboard the ship, taped a few minutes of the operation. The video, which the Coast Guard investigators used as evidence, shows six of the nine officers using pressure washers on the sludge.

“It took a day and a half to clean the deck,” Legg said. “I participated in that, and basically all of the crew did. … Even the captain was pulling lines and scrubbing” in the video.

The investigators concluded that the officers purposefully intended to cover up the incident. The 895-foot ship was less than two years old at the time.

“The crew then took steps to hide the discharge and failed to record the transfer in the ship’s oil record book,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage said in a statement.

“Additionally, rather than recording that the tanker had slowed and turned into the wind to clean oil from the side of the ship, the captain reported to the company that the ship had performed a man-overboard drill.”

In addition to the financial penalties, Holland sentenced Polar Tankers to three months probation and an environmental compliance plan.

Legg was entitled to half of the $500,000 criminal fine under the terms of the federal Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. Legg said he reported the incident to the company before telling the Coast Guard.

ConocoPhillips officials declined Professional Mariner’s requests for an interview. The company issued a statement emphasizing that it cooperated with federal investigators. The company notified the federal judge that it fired the Polar Discovery captain and other supervisors. Federal authorities have not announced any plans to criminally charge the individuals.

The PBS program Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports ran a story about the Polar Discovery incident and Legg’s role as a whistle-blower. Legg, of Olympia, Wash., had worked as an engineman and third engineer aboard the ship for about six years.

No longer involved in the maritime industry, Legg has begun a new career in commercial real estate. He hopes his actions will convince ship operators to obey the law and report their spills.

“It’s an environmental hit-and-run,” Legg said. “It’s an accident, but it doesn’t excuse you from the responsibility. The covering up for four months was not an accident.”

By Professional Mariner Staff