First engineer on Zao Galaxy found guilty in California pollution case

The first engineer of Unix Line chemical/oil products tanker Zao Galaxy (IMO 9566150) has been found guilty of aiding and abetting an environmental crime and obstruction of justice in connection with the intentional dumping in oily bilge water from the vessel in February 2019.

Gilbert Fajardo Dela Cruz was found guilty after a two-week trial in Oakland, California. In March this year Unix Line Pte Ltd, the primary ship management arm of MOL Chemical Tankers, was fined $1.65m after pleading guilty to charges relating to its role in the case. As is normal in these cases in the US, the company was also placed on probation for a period of four years, and ordered to implement a comprehensive Environmental Compliance Plan as a special condition of probation.

The prosecution said that in January of 2019 Dela Cruz, a Philippine national, was the First Engineer of the Zao Galaxy when it travelled from the Philippines to Richmond, California.

On February 11th 2019, US Coast Guard examiners boarded the Zao Galaxy while it was moored in Richmond to conduct an examination. During the examination, a crewmember passed a note to an examiner requesting a meeting after the inspection. The crewmember revealed the existence of a so-called “magic pipe”. After the inspection and a follow-up investigation, Unix ultimately admitted that a ship officer directed crew members to discharge oily bilge water overboard, using a configuration of drums, flexible pipes, and flanges to bypass the vessel’s oil water separator.

“Magic pipe” discharges are not uncommon, and not necessarily illegal, in international shipping, as they are the cheapest way to deal with failures of oily water separators. In most localities, the penalty for a “magic pipe” oil record book discrepancy amounts to a fine or a PSC deficiency record, but in the US it is treated as a felony crime.

If a crewmember initiates a MARPOL case as a whistleblower, they may be eligible for a reward totalling as much as half the amount of the fine if the vessel operator is convicted.

On February 26th 2020 the company admitted the discharges were done knowingly and that they were not recorded in the Zao Galaxy’s oil record book when it was presented to the USCG during the vessel’s inspection.

One of the discharges allegedly occurred within three miles of the Golden Gate Bridge as Zao Galaxy approached San Francisco Bay, according to the USCG.

However, Cruz denied responsibility for the crimes and elected to go to trial. The jury concluded that he aided and abetted a violation of the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships by causing the captain of the Zao Galaxy to maintain an inaccurate oil record book and that he also committed obstruction of justice.

According to the evidence presented at trial, Dela Cruz had ordered a lower-level employee who worked as his assistant to dump oily waste from the ship’s engine room directly into the ocean using a “magic pipe.”

Dela Cruz then concealed the dumping by not recording the movement or discharge of oily waste in the ship’s oil record book, for which he was responsible.

Cruz ordered that certain pieces of equipment be repainted and the “magic pipe” be hidden to avoid USCG detection. During the USCG inspection Cruz told his assistant who had dumped the oily waste overboard not to throw him “under the bus” and that they needed to get their stories straight for the Coast Guard.

A federal grand jury indicted Cruz on October 24th 2019, charging him with one count of violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding.

The jury found Cruz guilty on all three counts.

Cruz faces a maximum of six years’ imprisonment and $250,000 for and three years of supervised release for the pollution count, 20 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 for the obstruction of justice count, and five years of imprisonment and $250,000 for the obstruction of the agency proceedings count.

The court may also order an additional term of supervised release, restitution, and fines.

Cruz has been released on bail pending sentencing, which is scheduled for June 11th.

2012-built, Marshall Islands-flagged, 16,408 gt Zao Galaxy is owned by FGL Moon Marshall Ltd care of manager Chemical Tankers Pte Ltd of Singapore. ISM manager is Unix Line Pte Ltd of Singapore. It is entered with UK Club on behalf of FGL Moon Marshall Ltd