Princess Cruise Lines will pay a $40 million fine for "deliberate pollution of the seas and intentional acts to cover it up," according to the Department of Justice, which calls it "the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution."
The California-based cruise operator also agreed to plead guilty to seven felony charges over illegal practices on five ships dating back, in at least one case, to 2005.
The Justice Department said in a statement that Princess illegally dumped contaminated waste and oil from its Caribbean Princess ship for eight years — a practice that was exposed by a whistleblowing engineer in 2013.
The engineer quit his job over the dumping when the ship docked in the U.K. and alerted British authorities, who notified the U.S. Coast Guard. He said other engineers were using a device called a "magic pipe" to bypass the ship's water treatment system and unload oily waste into the ocean.
Then, other engineers attempted to hide the evidence of illegal dumping before British investigators could board the ship, according to the Justice Department. The statement read: "The chief engineer and senior first engineer ordered a cover-up, including removal of the magic pipe and directing subordinates to lie." This continued during a subsequent investigation led by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Justice Department said the deliberate pollution was likely an attempt to cut costs: "The chief engineer that ordered the dumping off the coast of England told subordinate engineers that it cost too much to properly offload the waste in ports and that the shore-side superintendent who he reported to would not want to pay the expense."
In addition to the illegal waste dumping from the Caribbean Princess, the Department of Justice says it uncovered illegal practices on four other Princess ships:
- "One practice was to open a salt water valve when bilge waste was being processed by the oily water separator and oil content monitor. The purpose was to prevent the oil content monitor from otherwise alarming and stopping the overboard discharge."
- "The second practice involved discharges of oily bilge water originating from the overflow of graywater tanks into the machinery space bilges. This waste was pumped back into the graywater system rather than being processed as oily bilge waste."
Some discharges likely took place within U.S. waters, the Justice Department says.
"The pollution in this case was the result of more than just bad actors on one ship," Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden says. "It reflects very poorly on Princess's culture and management."
In a statement to NPR, Princess Cruises says it is "extremely disappointed about the inexcusable actions of our employees." It says it launched an internal investigation in 2013. And "although we had policies and procedures in place, it became apparent they were not fully effective," the statement reads. "We are very sorry that this happened and have taken additional steps to ensure we meet or exceed all environmental requirements.
Princess Cruises is a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival Corp., and the plea agreement requires ships from eight of Carnival's companies to submit to court-supervised monitoring of environmental compliance for the next five years.