SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (CBSMiami) -- Princess Cruise Lines has been ordered to pay the largest-ever criminal penalty for the intentional pollution of ocean waters.
The company has agreed to plead guilty to seven felony charges stemming from the illegal dumping of contaminated waste into the open seas and deliberate acts to cover it up.
The investigation began after an engineer on the Caribbean Princess reported to authorities that the ship's crew was using a "magic pipe" to discharge oily waste off the coast of England on Aug. 23, 2013.
That whistleblower would later quit his position upon returning to land, while senior ship engineers "ordered a cover-up, including removal of the magic pipe and directing subordinates to lie," said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.
Investigators said the chief engineer then held a "sham meeting" with crew in the engine control room pretending to look into the allegations, all while holding up a sign that read: "LA is listening."
"The engineers present understood that anything said might be heard by those at the company's headquarters in Los Angeles, California, because the engine control room contained a recording device intended to monitor conversations in the event of an incident," said the Dept. of Justice.
4,227 gallons of illegal waste were discharged 23 miles off the coast of England, still within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone.
"At the same time as the discharge, engineers simultaneously ran clean seawater through the ship's overboard equipment in order to create a false digital record for a legitimate discharge," the DOJ added.
The Caribbean Princess has been making these illegal discharges through bypass equipment since 2005, one year after the ship began operations, according to papers filed in court.
Furthermore, several other illegal methods to pollute the seas were found to have taken place on the cruise ship, as well as four others -- the Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess and Golden Princess.
"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 DOJ said. "The purpose was to prevent the oil content monitor from otherwise alarming and stopping the overboard discharge. This was done routinely on the Caribbean Princess in 2012 and 2013. 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. Neither of these practices were truthfully recorded in the oil record book as required."
Princess is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise company, which owns and operates multiple cruise lines. As part of the plea agreement with Princess, eight Carnival companies -- Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line N.V., Seabourn Cruise Line Ltd. and AIDA Cruises -- will be audited under a court supervised Environmental Compliance Program for five years.
Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said it's a strong stance taken against environmental threats in waters around the world, including South Florida.
"As Floridians, everyone here has the luxury of being surrounded by water. We all have the opportunity to swim, sail, fish and travel at a moment's notice. But here in Miami, we also have the cruise ships that dock on a daily basis," he said. "We must always stand up against the deliberate pollution of our international seas that threaten mankind, animals and our marine life."
Investigators determined the motive for discharging the waste was a financial one, saying "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 port and that the shore-side superintendent who he reported to would not want to pay the expense."
Princess Cruises released a statement following the plea agreement:
"We are extremely disappointed about the inexcusable actions of our employees who violated our policies and environmental law when they bypassed our bilge water treatment system and discharged untreated bilge water into the ocean," the statement began. "Although we had policies and procedures in place, it became apparent they were not fully effective. We are very sorry that this happened and have taken additional steps to ensure we meet or exceed all environmental requirements."
The company added that over the last three years, they implemented corrective measures to improve "oversight and accountability."
"For example, we completely restructured our entire fleet operations organization including new leadership. We also increased the scope and frequency of our training, and proactively invested millions of dollars to upgrade our equipment to new ship standards to ensure compliance with all environmental regulations."
If approved by the court, $10 million of the $40 million criminal penalty will be devoted to community service projects to benefit the maritime environment; $3 million of the community service payments will go to environmental projects in South Florida; $1 million will be earmarked for projects to benefit the marine environment in United Kingdom waters.
for more features.