Among men who work on the big ships that carry cars and trucks from Asia to North American ports, including the busy one in Baltimore, it's known as the "magic pipe," apparently because it can make thousands of gallons of oily waste-water disappear from a ship at sea in the middle of the night.
But, of course, the black sludge from a ship's bilge doesn't really disappear.
It goes through the "magic pipe" directly into the ocean — an obnoxious violation of laws designed to protect the sea and its inhabitants from the dumping practices associated with too many vessels for too many years.
Marine Defenders, an organization that tries to focus public attention on this problem along the coasts of New Jersey and New York, notes that, when most Americans think of oil pollution and water, we think of big accidents — the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound or the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"But," the group says, "most of the oil spilled into the world's oceans by humans actually comes from intentional spills from ships."
And the "magic pipe" is one of the ways that happens.
The "magic pipe" has been around for years; it's well known in the marine industry.
But you'll be pleased to know that men go to jail for deploying the "magic pipe," and the ship operators that employ them sometimes pay millions of dollars in fines.
You'll also be pleased to know that whistle-blowers — crew members who see the "magic pipe" in use and secretly report the illicit practice to the U.S. Coast Guard — have been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars as a reward for their honesty and courage.
More on that in a minute.
First, let's go back to the engine room.
The massive engines of cargo ships — "They're as big as airplanes," says Michael Cunningham, a federal prosecutor in Baltimore — generate lots of oily waste. Oil leaks from the machinery, and from the lubricating and fuel systems. It gets into the bilge and mixes with water.
This sludge is a nuisance, but it has to be dealt with under strict guidelines. It is supposed to be stored, incinerated or unloaded for disposal in port.
Under the federal Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), passed by Congress in 1980, ships are allowed to dump some wastewater in the ocean, but only after it has been filtered through an oil-water separator — and only if it contains no more than 15 parts per million of oil.
According to Marine Defenders, ships have pollution-prevention devices designed to sound an alarm and shut off discharges when concentrations of oil are greater than that allowed by law.
The "magic pipe" bypasses that system.
In the case of the Selene Leader, a 652-foot, Japanese-operated car-carrier that called on the port of Baltimore, the "magic pipe" was a rubber hose that the engine crew used during the ship's voyages in 2013. The ship made at least two illegal discharges, though it is not known exactly where they occurred.
At least one member of the crew reported this to the Coast Guard, and the result, a year later, was a case developed by the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore. Cunningham was the local prosecutor, and he worked with a senior trial attorney from the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, David Kehoe.
Within the last month, Chief U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake sentenced Noly Torato Vidad, the 47-year-old chief engineer of the Selene Leader, to eight months in prison for trying to hide the illegal discharges by falsifying records, destroying documents and lying to Coast Guard investigators when the Selene Leader was docked in the port of Baltimore in January 2014.
According to Vidad's plea agreement with the government, he also told members of the engine crew to lie to the Coast Guard.
Hachiuma Steamship Co., the operator of the Selene Leader, pleaded guilty to violating the APPS, and Blake ordered the Japanese company to pay a $1.8 million penalty.
Here's something that should please you: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation gets $450,000 of Hachiuma's fine to fund projects benefiting the Chesapeake Bay.
And there's one more piece that should bring some satisfaction to any inhabitant of the Earth offended by the use of the "magic pipe" on board the Selene Leader: The whistle-blower who alerted the Coast Guard gets $250,000.
There have been other such awards, say Kehoe and Cunningham, mentioning a "magic pipe" case in Baltimore in 2012 in which a federal judge ordered that a ship's engineer receive $462,500 for reporting violations of APPS by the Greek operator of a Danish vessel. Those awards are entirely appropriate, the prosecutors say, not only because they reward integrity and honesty, but because they provide crew members with financial security should their jobs become jeopardized.
Nothing here reverses the damage done to the sea by the "magic pipe," but it's all pleasing to know nonetheless.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.