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U.S. Coast Guard 5th District

Mid-Atlantic Watch

The handwritten note, composed by a non-English speaker, read, “Good morning sir, I would like to let you know this ship discharging bilge illegally (sic) using by magic pipe, if you want to know illegal pipe there in workshop five meters long with rubber. Sir, I hope if you don’t mind. We have a security for our safety. …”

It was furtively passed by a crewman to a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) inspector in Morehead City, N.C., in March 2010 during an inspection of the Chem Faros, a 21,145-gross-ton, Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship. The note and the inspection it triggered would ultimately lead to the sentencing of the ship’s operator and chief engineer for violating the U.S. Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships by U.S. District Judge James C. Denver III, on June 7, 2010.

Protecting the mid-Atlantic maritime environment is but one of the many responsibilities of the U.S. Coast Guard 5th District. In fact, the district has unique missions not found in other service districts. In addition to watching over waterways and ports from the southern North Carolina border to central New Jersey, the district has taken on the rotary-wing intercept mission for restricted airspace zones in the National Capital Region using detached crews and aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City. The 5th District’s Station Washington (established in 2003 and located on the Potomac River) is tasked with patrolling the areas around Washington, D.C., using the Coast Guard’s new response boat-small (RB-S) 25-foot craft to protect the nation’s capital from a variety of waterborne threats.

Ensuring the safe operation, security, and environmental compliance of commercial shipping alone is a huge task. According to the Washington, D.C.-based transportation research board, 10 percent of the world’s shipping traffic moves through U.S. coastal waters and the East Coast accounts for over 20 percent of that traffic, much of it transiting District 5.

In U.S. waters, vessels like the Chem Faros can only discharge oil-contaminated bilge waste if it is processed through onboard pollution prevention equipment. Typically this means an oily water separator (OWS) that separates water from oil and other wastes, discharging effluent, which contains 15 parts per million or less of oil. But for cost reasons, ship operators often bypass the OWS and discharge contaminated waste directly into the water.

Chief Petty Officer Jeff Mead and Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Foucha, both divers with Regional Dive Locker East based in Portsmouth, Va., prepare to dive into the Potomac River near Hallowing Point Light to retrieve batteries that had previously fallen into the water from the aid to navigation (above), Sept. 8, 2010. The dive team was able to recover four batteries that will be returned to the batteries’ vendor so they can be recycled. Maintaining aids to navigation is just one of the many missions with which District 5 is tasked. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandyn Hill

The Chem Faros crewman informed a member of the USCG boarding team that a “magic pipe,” a length of hose used to bypass the ship’s OWS, was located in the ship’s engine department workshop. Subsequent investigation revealed that from September 2009 through March 2010, engine department crewmembers pumped oil-contaminated waste directly overboard through the pipe as many as 10 times, according to some crewmembers.

On March 18, for example, the Chem Faros’ chief engineer ordered the engine department crew to bypass the OWS and discharge bilge waste directly overboard, resulting in the discharge of approximately 13,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste. Later, the chief engineer admitted making false entries in the vessel’s oil record logbook, acknowledging the bypass of more than 50 cubic meters of bilge waste during this occasion.

Following the initial investigation, the case was further investigated and prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office-Eastern District of North Carolina, the Department of Justice-Environmental Crimes Section, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Computer Forensic Team. The Chem Faros’ operator, Cooperative Success Maritime S.A., eventually pled guilty to the transgressions and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge James C. Denver III, to pay an $850,000 penalty and be put on probation for five years. Though the Chem Faros case is one of the more high profile environmental enforcement actions undertaken in District 5, it is not the only one.

District 5’s new commander, Rear Adm. William Lee, comes to the command from the Arlington, Va.-headquartered Deployable Operations Group, where he directed 27 deployable specialized force units. Though he’s spent considerable time in the U.S. Coast Guard 5th District on previous assignments, Lee said he’s still learning about the district and looking forward to providing its Guardsmen with the support they need.

“I’m more familiar with D5 [District 5] than any other district because I’ve had the privilege of serving here three different times. Do I know everything about D5? No. I do not. I’d say I’m very comfortable in D5. It’s a good fit for me and I’m pleased to be here.”

The Chem Faros case and a similar case involving the Greek-flagged M/V Iorana prove the seriousness with which the Coast Guard and the U.S. government take the environmental protection mission.

“Protecting and preserving our environment is one of the Coast Guard’s primary missions,” Lee confirmed. “It’s what we do every day whether it’s fisheries enforcement, an oil spill response, or vessel inspections. We are constantly mindful of the condition of our waterways. We have an obligation to the American public to protect our shoreline and fisheries. When we find someone [violating environmental regulations] it becomes our priority. Our investigators and staffs are very aware of the impact these cases are having within the court system. They’re getting media play and the stories are circulating through the [commercial] fleets. Every shipping company is aware of the consequences. This is as important as any other mission we undertake.”

The consequences of violating U.S. environmental law were brought home to the M/V Iorana’s operator, Irika Shipping S.A., after it pleaded guilty to violations of the Act to Prevent Pollution from ships related to port calls in Maryland, Washington, and Louisiana.

As with the Chem Faros, an M/V Iorana crewmember passed a note to a U.S. authority (a Customs and Border Protection inspector) when the ship arrived at the Port of Baltimore in January 2010. Photographs showing the use of a 103-foot “magic pipe” to bypass the Iorana’s OWS taken with the whistleblower crewmember’s phone were obtained during a subsequent Coast Guard inspection of the vessel. A joint investigation revealed that oil-contaminated bilge waste was discharged from June through December 2009, and that the illegal discharges were concealed in a fraudulent oil record logbook presented to the Coast Guard in Baltimore, Md., Tacoma, Wash., and New Orleans, La., Irika Shipping had been the subject of another illegal discharge prosecution in 2007 involving another ship it operated, the M/V Irika. As a result of the company’s pattern of transgressions and the fact that it had no budget for its vessels or a waste management plan, Irika now faces a $4 million penalty as part of a multi-district plea agreement.

“This was a case of willful and deceitful pollution and the corporation responsible is being held accountable,” Lee declared, following Irika’s July, 2010 guilty plea. “This case should serve as a deterrent to those who would violate marine pollution laws.”

In some respects, the illegal dumping of oily wastes resembles drug trafficking. Despite vital anti-pollution enforcement efforts, the practice continues.

“I suspect it’s like traffic violations,” Lee said. “There are far more speeders than tickets written.”

Yet District 5’s commander is confident that environmental enforcement actions undertaken by the Coast Guard and underpinned by the U.S. court system do encourage compliance.

“I do think our actions are having a deterrent effect,” Lee said. “The fines being levied against these shipping companies are pretty substantial and the judges have set aside a portion of those funds to go to whistleblowers, which is a huge incentive for employees of these shipping companies to stay on the right side of the fence. The shipping companies know this. Every time we catch one and successfully prosecute them, they’re stung badly by the fines. Word also travels fast among the employees who know that their jobs could be in jeopardy if they go the wrong way and that they could end up being liable themselves if they are part of the decision-making chain. But if they decide to assist the government with these prosecutions, they could be financially rewarded in a substantial way.”

Station Chincoteague crews trailer their shallow-water boat to keep it from being unnecessarily damaged as severe weather moves into the Chincoteague Bay area, Feb. 10, 2010. The station is also equipped with a self-righting 47-foot motor life boat, which the Coast Guard uses around the country in severe sea conditions. The new commander of District 5, Rear Adm. William Lee, is focused on ensuring that the district has all the assets and facilities necessary to carry out its missions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Kendrick

While these high profile environmental cases have drawn attention to the 5th District and to the variety of its missions, the district’s new commander has no plans to prioritize one over another.

“Because we’re a multi-mission agency, we use multi-purpose assets to accomplish our missions and we shift our priorities as circumstances dictate. Prior to 9/11, if you asked our operational commanders what their primary focus was, it was going to be law enforcement, search and rescue, and marine safety. Now we’ve integrated all those mission sets. The captain of the port is now the operational commander under the new sector [operations] concept. I think we’ve closed the gaps between the [commanders] with the authority to apply regulations and the [commanders] with the assets to enforce those regulations.

“My priority is pretty simple. It’s to execute all of our missions as safely and efficiently as possible given the resources I have. District 5 has operated well for decades and I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m going to radically change the course it has been on. I don’t think there’s any need for change.”

Though he contends that there’s no need for operational change, Lee does recognize the need to focus on the allocation of resources to his district, particularly ashore. Since taking the rein, the admiral has been on the road, visiting the people and facilities of the district, taking the tempo of its assets and listening to its personnel.

“I’m constantly visiting our folks and listening, trying to get them support where they need it. Right now, what I’m hearing more than anything else is that they need their shore infrastructure fixed and more space. I’m ringing the bell as loudly as I can on that.

“I believe the Coast Guard’s strategy for acquiring floating and flying platforms is well in place. As an operational commander what’s my primary concern? It’s closing the gap on the tremendous backlog of shore infrastructure and AC&I [acquisition, construction, and improvement] projects that have been unfunded or under-funded for decades, putting our ability to sustain operations shore-side a bit in jeopardy. We’ve got some pier faces that are falling in. We have units that don’t have the requisite infrastructure to work on their boats inside, out of the elements. That’s a major concern of mine right now, and I’m speaking to the leadership about those concerns as are many of my colleagues at other districts.”

Lee’s previous experience includes a recent tour as the chief of staff at the 7th District in Miami, Fla. As such, he’s well placed to compare the mid-Atlantic and Southeast districts.

“Obviously we butt up against each other but our mission sets vary. District 7’s mission sets differ markedly from every other except District 11. That’s because of the common border, migration, and counter-narcotics mission they both perform. Up here in the mid-Atlantic region, we do not have the same migration or narcotics traffic because we’re not adjacent to the Caribbean. But insofar as search and rescue, fisheries enforcement, and prevention are concerned, we’re all engaged in the same business day to day. The only thing that varies is the size and nature of the ports and the traffic coming in and out of those ports.”

Conducting those common missions, the admiral noted, will be helped by the acquisition of new assets like the Coast Guard response boat-medium (RB-M), now equipping District 5 installations including Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown, Va., and Station Little Creek, Va. The RB-M replaces the aging fleet of 41-foot utility boats, offering improvements in performance, crew efficiency, and operational availability

“We’ve put a lot of time into the design and acquisition of the right assets. The new RB-Ms that are coming off the line right now will be a far more capable platform to execute the PWCS [ports, waterways and coastal security] mission that we do and also go offshore and do the search and rescue mission. They’re faster, capable of operating in heavier seas, and more maneuverable.”

Putting the RB-Ms to work in the 5th District will be a deliberate and measured process, as will carrying out all its missions, Lee assures.

“It’s steady-as-she-goes and try to support the people who are performing the mission.”

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...