Bilge water is the nasty stuff that collects at the bottom of a boat. It can contain engine oil and anti-freeze, and releasing it in state waters is illegal. But even though it’s a crime, the state doesn’t get too many chances to prosecute it. Last week, the Department of Law scored a rare legal victory when a bilge water case was decided in their favor.
When someone dumps their bilge water, it’s hard to nab the perpetrator. The evidence literally dilutes as the crime is happening. Unless, of course, the evidence freezes. That’s exactly what happened in Seward on January 20, 2012. State attorney Carole Holley explains.
“Seward boat harbor employees found an oily sheen around the edges of the vessel, and the reason why this was so easily determined is because there had been a hard freeze in the night that sealed the vessel up in ice,” says Holley.
The boat was the motor vessel Dutch Harbor, and the man operating it was Allen McCarty. While there’s no way to get an exact amount of bilge water released, estimates put it at 200 gallons.
To prove McCarty was responsible for the pollution, the state’s environmental crimes unit teamed up with the Coast Guard. They took samples of the contaminated harbor water and of the bilge water still on the boat. Then, they compared them to see if they shared a similar composition.
“What they determined when they sent it to the U.S. Coast Guard’s laboratory in Connecticut was that there was a match,” says Holley.
McCarty was charged with unlawful discharge of oil, water pollution, and failure to report the release of hazardous substances. Last week, a jury found him guilty of all three counts. McCarty was fined $5,000, required to pay for the cost of the clean-up, and ordered to complete 50 hours of community service.
As the state’s environmental crimes attorney Holley says that part of why the state prosecuted the case was deterrence. There have been situations — like in Kodiak a couple years ago — where bilge dumps were identified, but the offending vessel was never found. And if enough people get away with discharging bilge water in a given area, it can have a real environmental impact.
“When you multiply it by a hundred Mr. McCartys, you have a lot of toxic materials that’s being put into the water,” says Holley.
McCarty’s attorney was also struck by how uncommon prosecution of this sort of crime is, but for different reasons. Paul Stockler says he can’t think of anyone who’s been in state court over bilge water violations. The most similar trial he can come up with is that of Captain Joe Hazelwood, over the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Stockler disagrees with the court’s decision, and is preparing to appeal it. He says his client was prosecuted for something he didn’t do. Stockler is also skeptical of the state’s evidence against McCarty.
“A person testified from back east that it was a match, whatever that means. So, he’s saying that the substance in the water is consistent with the substance in the bilge,” says Stockler. “I think their science is lacking.”
Holley’s confident in the test results, but says it is McCarty’s legal right to appeal. And in the meantime, she hopes that future violators think twice about dumping their bilge.