RMI sues over vessel grounding

The fish carrier Ou Ya Leng 6 as it appeared shortly after grounding on the reef at Taka Atoll in the northern Marshall Islands in early January 2019. Photo: US Coast Guard.

The Marshall Islands government filed both criminal and civil prosecutions of the China-based owners and operators of a fish supply ship that ran aground at Taka Atoll over a year ago.

The lawsuits seek financial damages from the companies for the vessel’s grounding and release of thousands of tons of oil and diesel. Both lawsuits were filed by private attorney David Strauss on behalf of the RMI government. The Cabinet in December approved Strauss as a Special Assistant Attorney General for legal action against the owners and operators of the fish supply ship, Ou Ya Leng 6.

The criminal case filed last week in the High Court charges Li Nianguo and Ningbo Eurasian Ocean Fishery Co. Ltd. — the ship owner and master — with violation of one count of “pollution of Class AA waters” from January 3 through August 31, 2019. The prosecution claims that over 27 tons of oil and fuel pollutants were discharged onto the reef and in waters around the atoll, causing damage and destruction to the reef ecosystem and marine life.

The criminal charge said this is a violation of the Marine Water Quality Regulations and the National Environmental Protection Act, carrying a fine of up to $25,000 per day. Strauss said for the January to August period, this amounted to $6 million.
High Court Judge Witten Philippo issued a summons for representatives of those charged to appear for a hearing in the High Court February 17. They were served on officials at Pan Pacific Foods in Majuro, which took on an unofficial role of assisting the China-based owners to communicate with RMI authorities after the grounding.

The civil suit, also filed last week, names companies in addition to Li Nianguo and Ningbo Eurasian Ocean Co. Ltd: The vessel Ou Ya Leng 6, Ping An Property and Casualty Insurance Co. of China Ltd., and People’s Insurance Co. of China.

The civil suit, also filed by Strauss, provides greater detail about the grounding of the vessel January 3, 2019 and also claims that a marine safety investigation of the incident concluded the cause of the grounding was the “result of improper navigation of the ship,” not loss of engine power or steering.

The suit said the vessel “owed the duty of care to navigate the ship safely.” The civil suit accused it of “refusing to send the promised tug to remove the stranded ship” and “preventing or obstructing the local Marshallese company from attempting to remove the stranded ship or the fuel/oil pollutants from the ship.”

The civil suit maintains that the vessel to this day continues to release pollutants into the ocean around Taka. There has been significant coral loss, loss of giant clams and other marine life, including turtle nesting areas, said the suit. Taka resources are “integral to the culture, economy and way of like of the people of Utrok,” the lawsuit said. The discharge of pollution and reef damage “was a foreseeable exult of the negligent grounding of the ship and the failure of the ship owners and its insurers to expediently remove the ship from the reef and the fuel/oil pollutants from the ship,” the suit said.
It said RMI EPA regulations provide for a $10,000 fine per day for each day a violation continues.

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