Freighter owner pleads guilty in grounding, spill

Singapore-based company faces $10 million fine

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The owner of the freighter that spilled tons of soybeans and 340,000 gallons of fuel off an Aleutian Island nearly three years ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to three misdemeanor federal counts.

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IMC Shipping Co. Pte. Ltd. (IMC) of Singapore, owner of the Selendang Ayu, pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the Refuse Act and one count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline accepted terms of the plea agreement, calling for a $10 million fine. The penalty includes $4 million in community service, including $3 million to assess risks for shipping hazards where the Selendang Ayu went aground along the Great Circle Route and $1 million for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

The 738-foot freighter ran aground Dec. 8, 2004, and broke in two on the north side of Unalaska Island. About 66,000 tons of soybeans were lost.

During rescue operations, a rogue wave crashed into a Coast Guard helicopter lifting Selendang Ayu crew members from the freighter and the aircraft crashed. Six of the 10 freighter crew members were killed. The helicopter crew was rescued.

The Selendang Ayu left Tacoma, Wash., on its way to China when it experienced mechanical problems. The vessel's engine was shut down as crew members attempted repairs. As the freighter drifted toward Unalaska Island, crewmen were unable to restart the engine. The ship grounded just off Spray Cape and broke apart.

More than 1,600 birds and six sea otters were found dead after the spill. IMC paid more than $100 million in cleanup costs.

U.S. Attorney for Alaska Nelson Cohen praised the company for its cooperation in the investigation that followed, making available foreign witnesses and experts who otherwise would have been beyond subpoena power.

"We had a tremendous amount of cooperation from the defendant," Cohen said.

The two sides remain at odds over whether the company was negligent. Cohen contends it could have been proved, if necessary.

Investigators concluded that the liner cracked because of improper maintenance and inappropriate operation of the engine - overheating the engine - which was aggravated by predicted stormy seas.

There were no tugboats with adequate towing capacity to keep the freighter from grounding.

IMC representatives deny the company was negligent. According to the company, at the time of the accident, all recommended maintenance and inspections had been carried out according to manufacturer's recommendations. The vessel had a full complement of spare parts when it left Washington state.

Cleanup of the spill was declared complete in June of 2006.

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