Two Cos admit discharging oil into Texas port waters

Two Greek shipping companies, Avin International LTD, and Nicos I.V. Special Maritime Enterprises, pleaded guilty last week in federal court in Beaumont, Texas, to the illegal discharge of oil into the waters of Texas ports by oil tanker M/T Nicos IV, reported Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and US Attorney Joseph D. Brown, acting for the Eastern District of Texas.

Avin International was the operator and Nicos IV Special Maritime Enterprises was the owner of Greece-flagged Nicos IV. The Master of the Nicos IV, Rafail-Thomas Tsoumakos, and the vessel’s Chief Officer, Alexios Thomopoulos, also pleaded guilty to making material false statements to members of the US Coast Guard during the investigation into the discharges.

Both companies pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding, as well as one count of failure to report discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act, and three counts of negligent discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act.

Under a plea agreement the companies will pay a criminal fine of $4m and serve a four-year term of probation, during which vessels operated by the companies will be required to implement an environmental compliance plan, including inspections by an independent auditor.

Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos each pleaded guilty to one count of making a material false statement and face up to five years in prison when sentenced.

According to documents filed in court, the Nicos IV was equipped with a segregated ballast system, a connected series of tanks used to control the trim and list of the vessel by taking on or discharging water. At some point prior to July 6th 2017, the ballast system of the Nicos IV became contaminated with oil and that oil was discharged twice from the vessel into the Port of Houston, on July 6th and July 7th 2017, during deballasting operations.

Both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos were informed of the discharges of oil in the Port of Houston. Tsoumakos failed to report the discharges as required under the Clean Water Act.

Neither discharge was recorded in the vessel’s oil record book, as required under MARPOL and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.

After leaving the Port of Houston for Port Arthur, Texas, the deck crew was instructed to open the ballast tanks, and oil was observed in several of the tanks. After arriving in Port Arthur, additional oil began bubbling up next to the vessel, causing a report to the USCG.

During the ensuing investigation, both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos were said to have lied to the Coast Guard, stating, among other things, that they had not been aware of the oil in the ballast system until after the discharge in Port Arthur, and that they believed that the oil in the ballast tanks had entered them when the vessel took on ballast water in Port Arthur. The case was investigated by the USCG Investigative Service, helped by the USCG Sector MSU Port Arthur, which conducted the inspection of the ship. The prosecution was handled by Trial Attorney Lauren Steele of the Environmental Crimes Section of the US Department of Justice and Assistant United States Attorney Joseph Batte of the Eastern District of Texas.