Evergreen International, one of the world's largest shipping lines, concealed the discharge of waste oil, obstructed Coast Guard inspections and altered records over a three-year period ending in 2001, federal officials said.

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LOS ANGELES — A Panamanian shipping line today pleaded guilty to more than two dozen counts of illegal dumping around the United States and was ordered to pay $25 million in one of the largest fines ever imposed on a company that deliberately polluted the ocean.


Evergreen International, one of the world’s largest shipping lines, concealed the discharge of waste oil, obstructed Coast Guard inspections and altered records over a three-year period ending in 2001, federal officials said. The company entered its plea in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to 24 felony counts and one misdemeanor.


U.S. attorneys from five jurisdictions affected by the pollution — Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Newark, N.J. and Charleston, S.C. — hailed the plea agreement as a major victory in the fight against shipping companies trying to skirt the law.


“We take these crimes very seriously and if they won’t police themselves, we will do it for them,” Christopher Christie, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, said on a dock across from Evergreen’s shipping yard in San Pedro. “You can’t lie to the federal government with impunity and get away with it.”


U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. ordered Evergreen to pay the five districts $15 million that they will split equally. The remaining money will be given to environmental community service projects in each area.


“The $2 million that will be invested in environmental projects in Washington state won’t erase what the company has done — but it is an important step toward righting a wrong,” Sheryl Hutchison of the Washington state Department of Ecology said in a written statement from Olympia, Wash.


The shipping line must also implement an environmental plan for their vessels docked in U.S. ports.


Attorneys for Evergreen said the company has been in compliance for the past four years and decided to enter a plea agreement to move forward.


“To make us the poster child for environmental violations years later is ridiculous,” attorney Eric Dubelier said. “We’ve taken responsibility for what we did so we can go about our business.”


It is one of the largest fines ever imposed on a shipping line in a dumping case. In 1999, Royal Caribbean cruise lines paid $27 million in two cases after acknowledging it had polluted repeatedly and lied to the Coast Guard about it.


In Evergreen’s case, federal authorities said they began their investigation in March 2001 after they found about 500 gallons of oil in the Columbia River near Kalama, Wash. They were able to trace the spill to one of Evergreen’s ships.


The violations led to a thorough review of Evergreen’s policies. Federal officials said ship workers would use a pipe to bypass a pollution prevention device and allow them to dump sludge into the ocean — often at night — without it being treated.


Debra W. Yang, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, doesn’t know how much damage was done but called the amount “incalcuable.”


“The waste oil must be retained on board and it costs money to transfer it (to waste facilities in ports),” said Rear Admiral Kevin Eldridge of the U.S. Coast Guard. “They were getting a competitive advantage over those who are following the rules.”


Dubelier said the violations occurred on only seven of Evergreen’s 140 ships.


Evergreen paid $4 million to clean up more than 12,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil spilled from a steamship that accidentally struck a pipe on a South Carolina river in 2002. The company assumed the costs of the cleanup after a crew discovered a crack in the 991-foot Evergreen Ever Reach.


——— AP writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.