Great Lakes ship operator pleads guilty to environmental violations

The Cornelia leaves Duluth
The ocean-going ship Cornelia left the Duluth harbor Dec. 18, 2015, after being anchored outside Duluth for more than six weeks.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The German operator of a ship that was detained on Lake Superior outside Duluth last year pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to covering up environmental violations.

MST Mineralien Schiffahrt admitted that on at least 10 occasions last year — from February to October 2015 — crew members on the M/V Cornelia illegally dumped oil-contaminated waste water overboard.

They then failed to record those discharges in the ship's Oil Record Book, according to the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Minnesota.

That gave the false impression that the polluted water had been properly handled and disposed.

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At least one of those discharges occurred in the Great Lakes.

MST will be required to pay an $800,000 fine to the United States. The company will also make a $200,000 community service payment to help preserve the watershed of Lake Superior, and serve three years probation.

"Lake Superior is a vital part of Minnesota's natural environment," said Assistant United States Attorney John Kokkinen, in announcing the guilty plea.

"The criminal fine and community service payment imposed by the Court provide a strong deterrent to future would-be polluters and significant funding to preserve and protect Lake Superior for future generations," he said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office proposed to federal Judge Joan Ericksen that the community service payment should be awarded to the St. Paul-based nonprofit Minnesota Environmental Fund.

The Liberian-flagged 576-foot Cornelia and its 19 crew members were held at anchor outside Duluth late last year for more than a month as the Coast Guard investigated the alleged discharges.

The ship had loaded with grain on Nov. 3, 2015 for transport to Africa before being detained.

The saltie, as ocean-going vessels calling on the Port of Duluth-Superior are known, was finally allowed to leave on Dec. 18 so it could exit the Great Lakes before canals closed for the winter.

The case was the result of an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.