Saying the fate of its business is at stake, a firm based at the Port of Palm Beach is asking a federal judge to release its ship and crew that have been stranded for more than a month.
The Monarch Empress, a ship that normally transports cargo to and from Haiti, has been mysteriously detained at the Riviera Beach port by the U.S. Coast Guard since June 5.
Now Monarch Shipping, the family-run company that owns and operates the 296-foot ship, is seeking the release of the ship and five crewmen, who are being confined to the port’s grounds. The ship and crew are being unlawfully detained on unfounded allegations of dumping oily water in the ocean, Monarch’s attorneys said in a federal petition filed in West Palm Beach.
The 20-employee company is losing about $12,000 a day and its survival is at risk, they assert.
Shipping customers’ goods were held for weeks before they were released and sent to Haiti on another of the company’s ships, the Monarch Queen. When bound for Haiti, the ships typically are loaded with used cars and school buses packed to the ceiling with clothing, medicines, food and household goods.
Port fees for the ship amount to $60,349 through Thursday, based on a daily “lay-in” rate of $1,882.56, said port spokeswoman Julie Houston Trieste.
“I have not seen any evidence that any oil was discharged from this vessel into the ocean,” Stephen Darmody, a Miami attorney with Foley & Lardner, which represents Monarch, said Thursday.
The Coast Guard has yet to file any documents in the case, and there are no charges filed against the company, Darmody said.
The ship’s captain, chief engineer, second engineer and two other members of its engineering department were aboard the ship during a series of Coast Guard searches in June. The Guard has ordered the company to continue to pay the employees’ wages as well as room and board, the petition states. The men are living on the Monarch.
Lt. Gabe Somma, spokesman for Miami-based Coast Guard District 7, said he could not comment except to say that the Coast Guard’s attorneys are looking forward to a July 24 evidentiary hearing in West Palm Beach.
Cindy Lou Teeters, executive vice president of Teeters Agency & Stevedoring, Inc., is also secretary/treasurer of Monarch Shipping. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Monarch Shipping lines is privately owned and has operated since 1994. Teeters, founded in 1964, is its agent, according to the company’s website.
The Coast Guard is seeking $1 million in surety bonds as a condition of the Monarch’s release, and Darmody said the bond amount, if any, should be more reasonable.
To make matters worse, Monarch is also being sued by Gaz Industriels Associes in Haiti for failure to deliver $366,000 in cargo. Monarch could lose its only other operational vessel, the Monarch Queen, the petition says.
The ship and its crew have been detained “upon mere suspicion” of having violated the federal Act to Prevent Pollution From Ships, the petition says. It also alleges that the crew members were subjected to “extensive intimidating searches and seizures exceeding the scope of an administrative enforcement action and violating several crew member’s privacy rights.”
On June 6, Coast Guard personnel returned to the vessel to continue their investigation, but never advised the crew of their Miranda rights, the petition says.
“One crew member in particular was asked to return to his quarters to rewrite his statement so it would explain that oily water was discharged directly to the sea…The crew member objected to the demands of the USCG and stated this was not accurate,” the petition says.
The Coast Guard removed several items from the ship on June 5, including the oil record book and the manual for the oily water separator. Coast Guard officials returned to the ship on June 7, 8, 10, 11 and 13 and removed such additional items as the pneumatic pump and other equipment. They boarded the ship again on June 17 and tested the bilge water pump and discharged oily water from the bilge to a tank truck on the dock, the petition says.
Waste oil discharged by ships is an international problem. Ships found guilty of violating the act by releasing oily water in the seas have paid millions of dollars in fines.
In November, two German companies pleaded guilty in federal court in Houston to criminal charges that they concealed the illegal dumping of oil at sea from U.S. Coast Guard inspectors. They were fined $1.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Five percent to 15 percent of all large vessels are believed to break the law by discharging waste oil into the oceans, according to Marine Defenders. Estimates of illegal dumping range from 70 million to 210 million gallons of waste oil spilled into the world’s waters each year.