These were high crimes on the high seas – and on Thursday came the high price.
Santa Clarita-based Princess Cruise Lines will pay a king-sized $40 million penalty in a plea deal involving illegal ocean pollution and a cover-up by some employees, federal prosecutors revealed.
Princess, headquartered on Town Center Drive, pleaded guilty in Miami to seven federal charges – and the $40 million fine represents what U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said was the largest of its kind, ever.
The plea deal also requires Carnival Corp., parent company of the Princess line, to submit 78 cruise ships across its eight brands to a five-year environmental-compliance program overseen by a judge.
According to Ferrer, the case came to light in 2013, after an engineer aboard one of the company’s ships, the Caribbean Princess, discovered a “magic pipe” spewing oily waste from the ship’s engines and fuel systems into the Atlantic Ocean off Great Britain, and reported it to authorities.
It later came out the ship had been illegally dumping oily waste into the ocean as far back as 2005, reports said.
Similar illegal practices were also found to have occurred on four other Princess ships, according to reports.
“We are very sorry that this happened,’’ the company said, in part, in a prepared statement – adding it had cooperated with investigators.
Authorities said cost savings were the motivation — and that crew members aboard the ships had conspired to cover up the dirty doings.
By law, the oily waste produced by ships’ engines must be stored onboard, then offloaded and removed to a waste facility – not dumped raw into the ocean.
The Associated Press, citing court documents, reported that just one illegal discharge off the coast of England on Aug. 26, 2013, dumped 4,227 gallons of oil-contaminated waste.
The Caribbean Princess crew “violated the law, they covered it up and then they lied about it,” said John Cruden, assistant attorney general for U.S. the Justice Department’s environmental division.
He added: “We’re sending a strong message in this case to the entire industry.”
In one other instance disclosed Thursday, authorities said a crew from another Princess ship used clean ocean water to “fool” sensors used to detect illegal dumping of sludgy waste.
Princess’ Santa Clarita office referred questions to the company’s prepared statement. That statement read, in part:
“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.
“When we became aware of this back in August 2013, our headquarter’ s management cooperated with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and at the same time we launched our own internal investigation to learn all that we could about what happened.
“As a result of our investigation we discovered practices, on some other ships, where we were operating out of policy and in violation of environmental law. We have reached a plea agreement with the DOJ, which was announced today.’’
The company also said, “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.’’
Among those steps, the company said, were wider and more frequent training, and upgrading equipment to ensure environmental compliance.
The plea agreement and penalty must be approved by a Miami federal judge. If it is, $14 million of the Princess penalty will be earmarked for environmental projects in Florida, Great Britain and in international open waters, reports said.