By Colston Newton
After a three-year negotiation, Omega Protein and Federal agencies recently reached an agreement under which the company entered guilty pleas to two Clean Water Act violations involving disposal of waste water from its Reedville menhaden processing plant and the discharge of bilge water from its ships.
Under the agreement made June 4, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sentenced Omega to pay a five and a half million dollar fine and give an additional two million dollars to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for use in Virginia projects. It also put the company on probation for three years.
The case involved actions that happened between 2008 and 2010. In April 2010, Omega received a request for information from the Environmental Protection Agency about bail wastewater practices used in fishing operations at the Reedville facility, the Reedville plant’s parent corporation noted in a press release.
In Feb. 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted inspections at the Reedville facility regarding the Omega vessels’ bilge water discharge practices. The Clean Water Act charges arose out of those investigations and the agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office resolved both problems, the company said.
The charge relating to waste water from the plant, called “bail water,” had two components, Ben Landry, a company spokesman said Monday.
One component was the distance off-shore the bail water was released. EPA allows discharge of the water at least three miles from shore and on occasions Omega’s “water boats” were not that far out when they disposed of the water.
The second component involved caustic substances used in fish processing to get into the bail water, which is prohibited. Under the agreement with the Federal authorities, both problems have been eliminated.
The second charge had to do with the way Omega’s ships had been pumping out their bilges. In addition to water, oil would get into the bilges, Landry said, and the former practice had been to pump the water, which was below the oil in the bilges, until oil showed. That practice allowed some oil to be discharged. Now, Landry said, the ships will use separators so that only water can be pumped and every cock on the vessels from which water or oil could escape will be tagged shut.
Landry said that the compliance agreement has been in effect since 2011. “We accept the responsibility,” Landry said, noting that the company has spent millions to upgrade its equipment to remove the problem. It also removed some personnel in dealing with the difficulty, he said.
“Right now, we have the best vessels operating on the water due to the plan,” Landry added.
A press release from the United States Attorney’s office quoted an EPA special agent as saying, “The defendant put wildlife and aquatic life at risk in our nation’s largest estuary by illegally discharging non-permitted fish processing waste and oily waste water directly into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.” It did not indicated what, if any, actual harm was done.