A Holland America corporate officer apologized Monday in Juneau's federal courtroom for the cruise ship Ryndam's negligent dumping of about 20,000 gallons of untreated sewage in Gastineau Channel two years ago.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip Pallenberg said the apology was good enough for him to accept a plea agreement that will cost the company more than $2 million.
Pallenberg said media reports about the plea agreement last week quoted company officials saying things that didn't sound apologetic - that the spill wasn't very big and would have filled only a household swimming pool.
"It may only be the contents of a household swimming pool, but it's a swimming pool of untreated sewage dumped in our water," Pallenberg said from the U.S. District Court bench.
The single misdemeanor count of negligently discharging untreated sewage came from an Aug. 17, 2002, incident while the Ryndam was docked downtown.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis said the government would have been able to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. He told the magistrate the agreement for Holland America to plead guilty as charged at Monday's arraignment was "in the best interests of the United States."
The agreement was announced last week by the U.S. Attorney Timothy Burgess. Penalties include three years of probation, the maximum $200,000 fine and another $500,000 to improve water quality in Southeast Alaska.
The company also agreed to spend $1.3 million to improve its ships' handling of waste, and it promised an apology.
Kelly Clark, general counsel and assistant vice president for Holland America Line Maritime, told the court Monday that the company apologizes to the entire state of Alaska. She stressed that it is in the company's interests to keep Alaska waters clean.
"Nobody wanted this to happen," she said. "This does not define who we are as a company."
She pointed out that the company had worked with then-U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski to develop the law broken by the Ryndam. Holland America had spent $12 million on a system for its ships that would process sewage to near drinking-water quality.
"We installed these systems voluntarily," she said.
People made mistakes that led to the discharge, and they were disciplined, Clark added. "We immediately terminated two watch officers."
Pallenberg said a company that brings cruise passengers to Alaska would want to keep its waters clean.
"They come here to see clean water, whales and fish," he said. "They don't come here to see polluted water and dead fish."
But spending money on a system isn't enough, he added. He called the incident "a failure of management."
He said the plea agreement, which outlined the events that led to the spill, makes it clear that problems began by having only one environmental engineer on the ship.
Pallenberg said the engineer became distracted while sewage was being transferred between two tanks on the ship. He left the valve open and went off duty.
"When the alarms went off, people didn't respond," he added.
Because Pallenberg wouldn't have been able to levy a larger fine, he said he had to determine whether the terms of community service and probation were sufficient.
Community service will come from a $500,000 payment to the nonprofit National Forest Foundation to reduce the amount of pollutants that enter the watersheds and coast of Southeast Alaska. An additional $1.3 million environmental compliance plan will improve systems and training aboard all of Holland America's cruise ships.
Tony Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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