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Omega fined for polluting the bay

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Omega Protein’s menhaden purse boats (above) were working in the Chesapeake Bay off Cape Charles on Monday. Omega, the largest menhaden company in the United States, has a plant in Reedville and three plants on the Gulf of Mexico. Seven steamers with two purse boats each work Virginia waters. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Shannon Rice

Omega Protein was sentenced on June 4 by the U.S. District Court in Norfolk for two violations of the Clean Water Act stemming from its activities in the menhaden fishing industry, according to a press release from the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, Omega was sentenced to three years of probation and financial penalties totaling $7.5 million.

According to the statement of facts filed with the court in documents from May 2008 through September 2010, Omega combined bail water (fish waste) with pollutants generated by the processing operations and a caustic substance. This material was then discharged into the Chesapeake Bay at a point less than three nautical miles from the shore.

“Our permit indicates that the company cannot discharge inside of three miles. The violation occurred with the dumping within the three miles of shore. There was a discrepancy between our determination of the three-mile distance from shore and that of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Since the USCG determination is what the law is based upon, we were discharging within three miles to shore and were therefore out of compliance and in violation of the Clean Water Act,” said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry. 

The court records further reveal that from April 2009 through September 2010, Omega’s fishing fleet was operated in violation of the Clean Water Act. The fleet was configured in such a way that permitted the overboard discharge of oily wastewater directly into the sea. The vessels contained pumps in the bilge that were connected directly to the skin of the ship so that the oily waste from the bilge could be pumped overboard. The court records indicate it was common practice for Omega vessels to discharge oily wastewater in this manner while on their voyages.

Landry said Omega Protein’s vessels have been in service for many years and as a result they accumulate sea water and oil from the motors and engines aboard that settles in the boat. Vessels that travel more than 12 miles offshore are required to be equipped with an oil and water separator to separate the oil and water so the oil can be removed on shore for proper disposal. Omega Protein’s vessels rarely travel outside of 12 miles and did not have this device, though they were required to have them, said Landry. 

“As a result, oil residue from two boats was found in bilge pumps. The threshold for oil released into the sea as defined in the Clean Water Act is 15 parts per million. Since oil was released and we could not prove that it was less than 15 parts per million, the company was in violation of the Clean Water Act,” said Landry.

“Omega Protein’s conduct both harmed our environment and violated federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride, quoted in the EPA press release. “Today’s sentence, with its significant financial penalty, reflects the seriousness of these charges and our commitment to protecting the waterways of the Eastern District of Virginia.”

Omega Protein is on probation until June 2016. This means they are subject to unannounced audits by independent, third party monitors of bail water and bilge water practices. The results of these audits will be shared with the federal government.

“Omega is taking full responsibility for our Clean Water Act violations, which includes paying our $7.5 million fine and producing and adhering to our new comprehensive compliance plan, which has been in development since 2011,” said Landry.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 06.26.2013

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