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Coast Guard investigations help watershed projects flourish

Criminals paid to restore a stream that runs through a Bel Air park.

They also are covering the cost of upgrades to septic systems in the Sassafras River watershed and an effort to find new ways to detect illegal pollution discharge in Montgomery County and Cumberland.

In January, the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy will begin a two-year project to improve the Middle River and tidal Gunpowder watersheds, courtesy of lawbreakers.

All of the work is possible because local Coast Guard inspectors caught shipping companies dumping pollutants in the ocean and a federal judge ordered them to pay $1.3 million in restitution.

"It's not the things people know us for — patrolling the waters to keep boaters safe or on homeland security detail," said now-retired Capt. Mark O'Malley, who commanded Baltimore's Coast Guard operation until last summer. "But when you make one or two of these cases, it sends ripples through the maritime industry: 'Don't do it.' "

Environmentalists are grateful for the effort.

"It's definitely a case of making lemonade out of lemons," said Amanda Bassow, director of the Chesapeake Program for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. "You never want to see illegal activity, but because we have terrific groups doing terrific projects, we can make a difference."

The foundation, chartered by Congress in 1984, gets restitution money from individuals and organizations found guilty of environmental and natural resources crimes. The foundation, in turn helps finance environmental initiatives championed by organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, a public-private partnership.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said environmental crime is one of the few areas in which the Justice Department, rather than just collecting a fine, permits financial restitution to be directed to nonprofit organizations.

Two Coast Guard pollution investigations are helping to pay for about 10 watershed projects.

In Bel Air, a 300-foot section of stream through Plumtree Park that was routed through a concrete pipe is seeing daylight for the first time in more than 60 years because of a $157,000 grant. The free-flowing water is being shaded by nearly 100 trees, and there are hopes that fish and other wildlife will return.

"If you start at the headwaters, you get more bang for your buck," said Brian Bartell, a Bel Air native who is a landscape architect with Ecotone Inc., which performed the work. "Improvements here lead to improvements downstream and ultimately improvements in the Chesapeake Bay."

The Gunpowder conservancy received $89,100 to persuade Baltimore County homeowners over the next two years to convert 223 acres of lawn from grass to native plants, use rain barrels and plant 800 trees along 75 miles of waterfront.

"Because of the grant, we will be able to offer free technical assistance, hold workshops and offer some cost sharing," said Karen Stupski, who wrote the grant application.

Rosenstein said he is pleased to see local projects taking advantage of the restitution money.

"You can't go out in the middle of the ocean and clean up afterward. You may not even be sure where it happened. The closest you can get is to devote the money to cleaning up waters closer to shore," he said.

Catching ocean-going polluters can be a cat-and-mouse game. The law requires ships to store oily bilge water and other wastes for proper disposal or incineration. Unscrupulous shipping companies install what inspectors call "magic pipes" that snake through the bowels of the ship to dump wastes into the sea.

Coast Guard inspectors have a 95-page examination book and limited time.

"You're talking about an area several stories tall. There's piping and machinery everywhere. It's like, 'Where's Waldo?' Where could they hide something?" said Cmdr. Kelly Post, a veteran Coast Guard inspector. "If you don't have a whistle-blower, you're shooting in the dark."

In the two most recent cases, a crewman provided the road map. Inspectors aboard the Greek-registered Iorana were passed a note and later photographs of illegal dumping through a 103-foot hose. A low-level officer aboard the Maltese-flagged cargo ship Aquarosa handed over his cellphone filled with 300 photographs of the magic pipe and falsified logs.

"Yes, these cases are challenging," Rosenstein said. "But because of the crew members acting as informants, they have been easier to present. They tell us exactly where to look and how it operates."

It can take a year to make a case. Some whistle-blowers get a bounty for their trouble. In April, a federal judge awarded the Aquarosa whistle-blower $462,500.

"These are folks with no allegiance to the United States. They aren't U.S. citizens, they don't plan on staying in the United States," Rosenstein said. "There may be some public spirit to their cooperation, but generally speaking they have a financial motivation."

But there are no guarantees.

"When they hand over that thumb drive or those photos, they're handing over their lives to us," said Warrant Officer Matt Jones, a veteran Coast Guard inspector. "They've just ratted out their boss, their captain, their shipmates. We don't know if the Justice Department is going to take the case. I can't make a promise to them. I've had guys break down they're so scared."

Bassow said it is upsetting that dumping cases keep occurring, but also heartening that the Coast Guard and Justice Department are finding ways to punish polluters.

"The pretty steady stream of money speaks to the dedication of the Coast Guard and law enforcement," she said. "You can pass a note and you can get heard. That's a great story. Maybe the process is working and the magic pipes will disappear."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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