A federal judge in Baltimore has awarded $462,500 to a low-level merchant marine officer who alerted Coast Guard inspectors that his cargo ship was intentionally polluting the high seas.

In his ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis also left open the possibility of giving Salvador Lopez, a former ship's engineer from the Philippines, an additional $462,500 in reward money, depending on the outcome of another portion of the case.

Lopez gave Coast Guard inspectors in Baltimore a handwritten note tipping them off to the illegal dumping of oily waste and garbage during the M/V Aquarosa's first visit to the port of Baltimore in February 2011. He turned over to inspectors copies of the ship's log and his cellphone containing more than 300 photos documenting the violations.

Prosecutors and the Coast Guard said they would not have been able to make the case without Lopez, who showed them where to find the "magic pipe" deep in the engine room that allowed the ship's operators to pollute undetected. The 623-foot ship was built in China in 2010 and is registered in Malta.

In January, Efploia Shipping Co., the Greek operator of the vessel, and Aquarosa Shipping, the Danish owner, pleaded guilty and 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 agreed to prepare an environmental compliance plan that will be reviewed and audited by a court-appointed monitor.

As part of a plea agreement with Aquarosa Shipping, Lopez will be paid his reward on May 25. Lopez, who had been supporting a wife and four children on $27,000 a year, has been unable to get work since he began helping the investigation.

Efploia Shipping challenged the payment of whistle-blower money, saying Lopez should have told company officials so they could fix the problem rather than waiting to tell the Coast Guard.

In his ruling, Garbis said he saw no reason to delay paying Lopez while he reviews Efploia's legal challenge. If the judge rejects the company's argument, Lopez could receive an additional $462,500.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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