Houston, Texas - Two Greek shipping companies, Avin International LTD and Nicos I.V. Special Maritime Enterprises, were sentenced Friday in the Eastern District of Texas before Judge Marcia A. Crone on charges stemming from several discharges of oil into the waters of Texas ports by the oil tanker M/T Nicos I.V., announced Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and United States Attorney Joseph D. Brown for the Eastern District of Texas.
Avin International was the operator and Nicos I.V. Special Maritime Enterprises was the owner of the Nicos I.V., which is a Greek-flagged vessel. The Master of the Nicos I.V., Rafail-Thomas Tsoumakos, and the vessel’s Chief Officer, Alexios Thomopoulos, also pleaded guilty to making material false statements to members of the United States Coast Guard during the investigation into the discharges.
Both companies pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of an agency proceeding, one count of failure to report discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act, and three counts of negligent discharge of oil under the Clean Water Act on Nov. 26, 2018. Under the plea agreement, the companies will pay a $4 million criminal fine and serve a four-year term of probation, during which vessels operated by the companies will be required to implement an environmental compliance plan, including inspections by an independent auditor. Mr. Tsoumakos and Mr. Thomopoulos both pleaded guilty to one count of making a material false statement and were sentenced to pay fines of $10,000 each on Dec. 20, 2018.
“Our nation, including the State of Texas, rely on America’s ports and coastal waters for trade, recreation, and environmental enjoyment. Foreign companies acting in defiance of the laws and regulations that protect these valued resources threaten adjacent communities as well as marine ecosystems more broadly,” said Assistant Attorney General Clark. “The Division remains committed to pursuing justice for these offenders, and today’s action stands as proof of that commitment.”
“Our coastal waterways are critically important,” said United States Attorney Joseph D. Brown. “Companies that use them are expected to help maintain them by abiding by the Clean Water Act. When they do not, there will continue to be investigations and consequences for those violations. Furthermore, individuals are always expected to tell the truth when investigations are required, and failure to deal truthfully with investigators always makes a situation worse.”
“We are very grateful for the opportunity to work with the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the United States Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, and the United States Attorney’s Office, who were all instrumental in achieving this significant outcome,” said Captain Jacqueline Twomey of U.S. Coast Guard Sector MSU Port Arthur. “We believe that the results of this case will serve as a deterrent that will ultimately prevent or reduce the damage to the environment. By demonstrating the consequences of this vessel’s illicit actions, the intense collaboration and attention to detail of all team members ensured this vessel and others, with similar intentions that conduct trade in the United States, comply with domestic and international environmental laws intended to eliminate marine pollution around the globe.”
According to documents filed in court, the Nicos I.V. was equipped with a segregated ballast system, a connected series of tanks used to control the trim and list of the vessel by taking on or discharging water, the latter involving an operation called deballasting. At some point prior to July 6, 2017, the ballast system of the Nicos I.V. became contaminated with oil and that oil was discharged twice from the vessel into the Port of Houston on July 6 and July 7, 2017, during deballasting operations. Both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos were informed of the discharges of oil in the Port of Houston. Tsoumakos failed to report the discharges, which, as the person in charge of the vessel, he was required to do under the Clean Water Act. Neither discharge was recorded in the vessel’s oil record book, as required under MARPOL and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.
After leaving the Port of Houston, en route to Port Arthur, Texas, oil was observed in several of the ballast tanks. After arriving in Port Arthur, additional oil began bubbling up next to the vessel, which was then reported to the U.S. Coast Guard. During the ensuing investigation, both Tsoumakos and Thomopoulos lied to the Coast Guard, stating, among other things, that they had not been aware of the oil in the ballast system until after the discharge in Port Arthur, and that they believed that the oil in the ballast tanks had entered them when the vessel took on ballast water in Port Arthur.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector MSU Port Arthur, which conducted the inspection of the ship. Additional assistance was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit, and the Beaumont Police Department. The prosecution was handled by Trial Attorney Lauren D. Steele of the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice and Assistant United States Attorney Joseph R. Batte of the Eastern District of Texas.