When Coast Guard inspectors boarded a new freighter docking in Baltimore last February, a junior-level engineer from the Philippines approached and slipped them a note.
"I have sometheng to till you but secret," he wrote, using all capital letters.
The secret — that the ship had illegally dumped oily waste and garbage into the ocean — resulted in the owners and operators of the M/V Aquarosa being fined $1.85 million in federal court Wednesday and also ordered to pay $550,000 to a foundation to help restore the Chesapeake Bay.
And the whistle-blower, a seaman who supports a wife and four children on $27,000 a year, stands to earn a six-figure reward for his efforts, including gathering copies of the ship's logs and snapping hundreds of pictures of illegal onboard activities with his cell phone. A decision on the size of his reward is pending; federal law says the amount can be as much as half the fine.
"Without Salvatore Lopez coming forward, the crimes that occurred aboard the Aquarosa would still be going on," said federal prosecutor Richard Udell, who called illegal ocean dumping "virtually an epidemic."
The case is the latest in a series of high-profile pollution enforcement efforts sparked by whistle-blowers and carried out by Baltimore's Coast Guard investigators and the Justice Department.
Efploia Shipping Co., the operator of the vessel, and Aquarosa Shipping, the owner, were each fined $925,000. In addition, the defendants were each ordered to perform community service by writing checks for $275,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for nonprofit projects aimed at restoring the Chesapeake Bay and other Maryland waterways.
The two companies have agreed to prepare an environmental compliance plan that will be reviewed and audited by a court-appointed monitor.
Gregory Listin, a lawyer for Efploia, told U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis that in pleading guilty to four felony counts of polluting and attempting to cover up the actions, his client did not dispute any of the evidence gathered by Lopez.
But Listin argued that Lopez does not deserve any reward money because he should have alerted company officials, who, he said, would have corrected the problems. Listin said a reward would send a message to other seamen that whistle-blowing can be lucrative.
"They can snap their pictures and take their notes knowing that when they get to Baltimore or another U.S. port they can turn it over and earn the equivalent of 33 years' salary," Listin said. "Eight months on board and 96 days in port and [Lopez] said not a single word until he got to the cash register."
Lopez's lawyer, J. Stephen Simms, countered, "If money was the driving factor, where were the other 21 seamen on the Aquarosa?"
The 623-foot ship was built in China in 2010. Owned by Aquarosa Shipping, a Danish company, it is registered in Malta and run by a Greek company.
Greek nationals hired by Efploia made up the senior staff, and the crewmen were Filipinos hired by an agency in the Philippines. In its short life, the ship has delivered Chinese steel to Brazil, Brazilian sugar to Indonesia and Indonesian agricultural products to Europe.
The Aquarosa arrived from Europe on Feb. 19 — its first visit to Baltimore. Members of the Coast Guard's inspection team boarded the ship because it was operating with provisional safety and environmental certificates. As they spoke to the engineering staff, a tall, soft-spoken man handed them a note, court documents said.
Within days, Lopez turned over to Coast Guard investigators copies of the ship's logs over the eight-month voyage and a cell phone containing more than 300 photos of illegal onboard activities, court documents show.
Investigators found that the ship's senior engineers had devised a "magic pipe" that allowed them to bypass pollution-control devices and discharge waste oil and bilge sludge into the ocean undetected, court records showed. The records also showed that engineers then falsified logs to hide the fact and that top engineers ordered crewmen to dump oily garbage overboard.
After the investigation began, two crewmen were ordered to lie and another crew member was threatened with being fired and sent home, court documents said. The chief engineer pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and witness tampering in December and was sentenced to three months in federal prison.
"Everyone in the engine room knew what was going on, but only Mr. Lopez came forward," Udell said. "This individual, when he came forward, made sure he had proof. His information alone opened the investigation and resulted in the guilty pleas."
But Lopez has paid a price.
Udell said that since Lopez returned to the Philippines in November after assisting investigators for nine months, he has been unable to find work — while everyone else on the Aquarosa has signed on to other ships. Udell suggested that Efploia Shipping had sought to retaliate against Lopez.
This is the most recent in a series of similar pollution cases.
In 2010, Irika Shipping — a Greek-owned firm — was fined $4 million and ordered to write a $1 million check for Chesapeake Bay projects after pleading guilty to illegally discharging oil and plastic into the ocean.
Last year, a Liberian shipping company was fined $2.4 million for similar crimes and the chief engineer was sentenced to six months in federal prison for ordering crew members to dump oily waste and then obstructing investigators.
"I think the word is getting out to whistle-blowers that Baltimore is the place," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Kelly Post, who is in charge of the inspectors. "We listen."