TAMPA — A bay area wildlife restoration fund will receive part of a $1.75 million fine levied against a Japanese shipping company that pleaded guilty to conspiracy and falsifying ship records to hide illegal dumping of pollutants into the ocean.
Hiong Guan Navegacion Japan Co. Ltd. agreed to give $400,000 of the fine to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, federal court records show. The organization oversees initiatives of the Pinellas County Environmental Fund, whose projects benefit ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and the Tampa Bay Estuary.
Federal prosecutors discussed details of the plea on Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sentenced the shipping company to three years probation in addition to the fine.
Mike Slattery, Eastern Partnership Office director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said a panel of local and regional environmental experts will decide how the $400,000 will be spent.
The foundation is in the first phase of reviewing project proposals, he said, and the extra money means they can do even more, Slattery said.
Some of the money could trickle down to the region by summer, he said.
Last year, the foundation gave money to the MacDill Oyster Reef and Estuarine Habitat Creation Project, intended to restore or create 70 acres of mangrove forest, intertidal marsh and oyster reef habitat along the shoreline of MacDill Air Force Base.
The same day that the court rendered its decision, Gov. Charlie Crist was at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa signing a proclamation declaring March Seagrass Awareness Month.
Crist said he was unfamiliar with the case, but the fine made it clear that punishment should be meted out to polluters.
"It's only appropriate that those that caused the wrong pay for the damage that has been done," Crist said. "Polluters should pay."
Through its plea, Hiong Guan admitted that crew members aboard the M/V Balsa 62 used an illegal bypass pipe — called a "magic pipe" — to dump oily sludge and bilge water directly into the ocean. Federal law requires that ships run oily water through a separator and then incinerate the sludge before disposing the cleaned water into the ocean.
Crew members were required to record the dumping in an oil record book, but authorities said they omitted it.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cherie Krigsman said in court Tuesday that two whistle-blowers stand to receive award money for alerting authorities to the illegal activity.
Coast guard officials inspected the Balsa 62 in May while it was berthed at the Port of Tampa and discovered the pipe and false records, prosecutors said.
Mitsumoto Odagiri, a Hiong Guan manager, apologized in court for the crew's actions.
"We accept all responsibility," he said.
Hiong Guan attorney Michael Chalos said that while on probation, the company will have its 24-vessel fleet inspected to ensure compliance with regulations. He assured the judge that the company's officials would no longer be willfully ignorant.
"I take to heart the statements that the corporate culture has changed here," Merryday said in court. "We believe in redemption."
But, the judge warned, if the company reoffends, "We will meet again."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.