Owners of one of the world's largest cargo-shipping businesses — a company for which the Port of Tacoma last year built a 171-acre...

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Owners of one of the world’s largest cargo-shipping businesses — a company for which the Port of Tacoma last year built a 171-acre terminal — agreed yesterday to pay $25 million in fines for secretly dumping oil into the oceans and repeatedly doctoring log books to cover it up.

In an investigation that started with an accidental 500-gallon oil spill on the Columbia River four years ago, state and federal authorities ultimately caught seven Evergreen International ships routinely shutting off alarm systems or using special pipes and hoses — all to intentionally bypass pollution controls and dump oily waste and sludge into the high seas.

Evergreen, the largest single shareholder of Evergreen Marine, one of the Port of Tacoma’s largest container-ship customers, pleaded guilty to 24 felonies, including attempting to obstruct Coast Guard inspections, and will pay the largest vessel-pollution fine in the Justice Department’s history.

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“The size of the fine here is in part related to Evergreen’s ability to pay it,” said John McKay, U.S. attorney for Western Washington. “A lot of these shipping companies operate on very thin margins. Evergreen has substantial profits. The fine needed to be big enough to hurt these guys.”

The fine will be split evenly among five states, with 40 percent of it going into special funds to be used for environmental-restoration projects — $2 million of which will be dedicated to stewardship projects in the Puget Sound region.

The case is the latest in a string of intentional-dumping cases, which federal officials maintain are rampant in the maritime industry. In the past three years, at least eight ship captains and engineers have been sent to prison, and companies have been assessed millions of dollars in fines in the Northwest and Alaska alone.

At issue is how some cargo and container ships dump oily bilge or the solvents, oily residue and waste from a ship’s engine room. While water and oil are supposed to be separated, and the waste stored onboard until it can be incinerated or disposed of on land, shippers frequently use pipes and hoses to bypass those expensive, finicky systems and dump the waste overboard.

The oil can kill fish, birds and sea mammals or impair their reproductive systems. Scientists contend that even small amounts in sensitive areas can cause long-term damage to marine life.

No one knows how much oil is sneaked over the side, but ships can generate 1,000 gallons of oily waste on each trans-Pacific journey.

The Evergreen case started in March 2001, when heavy oil started washing into the nets of fishermen on the Columbia. Department of Ecology officials eventually traced the oil and matched it to oil from an Evergreen ship. The company denied its ship had spilled anything. Suspicious, state inspectors and the Coast Guard began boarding other Evergreen ships.

They noticed equipment that had been disassembled or doctored that could only have aided illegal dumping. They found oil in places where it could only be if the company was illegally disposing of its waste. The case eventually stretched to Evergreen vessels in five states on both coasts.

Yesterday’s plea agreement was reached between Evergreen and Justice Department officials and covers cases in all five states.

“The actual occurrence on the Columbia [River] was not intentional,” said Micki Brunner, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. “But that put in motion the investigation.”

Company spokeswoman Barbara Yeninas said Evergreen responded quickly to fix the problems after they were brought to its attention, retraining crew members and retrofitting ships so it would be more difficult to bypass pollution controls. She pointed out that dumping took place on only seven of the 34 ships Evergreen uses in the United States, and that dumping had ceased by 2001.

“This was done by crew members acting against stated company policy,” she said.

But McKay disputed that characterization, referring to what he said was “an apparent companywide effort to conceal illegal conduct.”

He pointed out that crew members on some ships instructed others to lie to Coast Guard regulators and, in at least one case, destroyed a pipe that had been used to dump oil because they feared federal inspectors would find it.

He also pointed out that the plea agreement requires Evergreen ships that ply U.S. waters to be audited by outside firms, and that even those audits must be reviewed by a court-appointed monitor.

“If they are indicating today that they cooperated with federal investigators, that is yet another lie because they did not,” he said. “Any sense that this was the act of a few individuals or a few bad apples is flat-out wrong.”

The plea agreement comes as Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine’s role in the traffic of goods through Puget Sound is exploding. Earlier this year, the Port of Tacoma described its new $210 million Evergreen terminal as a “driving force” in the region’s economy. Three Evergreen vessels a week arrive in Tacoma from Asia. Mike Wasem, port spokesman, said only that Evergreen is a good customer.

“I’ve been asked by our customer not to make any comment,” Wasem said. “We will not speak on it because it’s a customer situation here.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093

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