Ship crew members whistleblowers reveal ocean dumping for large financial bounties

Seamen and women are becoming whistle-blowers, frequently obtaining a financial bounty, turning in maritime polluters, providing the evidentiary basis for a growing number of cases the federal government has pursued in Baltimore and other port cities across the country. One such case involves a crew member named Salvador Lopez, who was aboard the cargo ship Aquarosa. He turned a note over to a Coast Guard inspector which revealed that the ship had been illegally dumping oily water and sludge overboard. In fact, he had proof: hundreds of photographs stored on his phone.Œ

Two companies that owned and operated the ship pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and other charges and paid $2.4 million and penalties and fines. Mr. Lopez collected as much as $925,000. No one knows exactly how much is dumped. However, one analysis put the annual amount at eight times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which was 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Most of the cases involve illegal dumping of sludge and oily bilge water, the residue from the engines. International conventions that the United States adopted in 1980 require ships to separate out oil, then incinerate it or store it until reaching port. The law also forbids dumping plastics.

In 1987, a whistle-blower provision was added to United States law, allowing seamen who report these crimes to collect up to half of the criminal fines imposed. Those bounties can reach as much as a million dollars. There have been roughly 40 cases including several against cruise ship lines.

Jeffrey Newman represents whistleblowers