$40 Million Penalty for Marine Pollution Underscores the Importance of Environmental Compliance and Corporate Social Responsibility

On December 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Princess Cruise Lines Ltd. pleaded guilty to felony charges stemming from pollution of the ocean.  The $40 million penalty is the largest-ever criminal penalty for marine pollution, setting a precedent for future cases related to contamination of marine environments.

This decision is a landmark act by both the U.S. Department of Justice and Princess Cruise Lines.  It underscores two important realities in today’s maritime industry: first, a concerted effort and significant action to identify, address and hold perpetrators accountable for marine pollution at the highest levels of the U.S. government; and second, a critical and ongoing shift within the maritime industry toward greater corporate social responsibility.

Let’s address both points.

Maritime environmental pollution is not new.  With ongoing research and a deeper understanding of ocean environments, we are constantly aware of the impact our actions have on fragile marine ecosystems and the planet.  For centuries, maritime pollution occurred without an understanding of what happens to our trash or debris.  Today, we know better and operate with several levels of maritime environmental compliance regulations from International Maritime Organization, federal, state and even local players.  It is a complicated and sometimes confusing set of regulations.  For many years, a culture of cover up and slaps on the wrist sent the message to large marine players that environmental compliance was not a high priority for governments or enforcement bodies.  The December 1 decision turns that culture on its head, underscoring once and for all the significant harm of environmental pollution and the significant action the U.S. government is willing to take to address, prevent and hold accountable its perpetrators.

Maritime environmental pollution can easily take place knowingly or unknowingly.  All too easily compliance errors can happen, and out of fear these errors may be covered up.  When an error is not caught, it is easy for employees to become complacent and continue to perpetrate the error.  This degrades a company’s culture of compliance. We commend Princess Cruise Lines for investigating the non-compliance errors and strengthening their corporate compliance and oversight process regarding environmental compliance and protection.  This case is a painful reminder of the importance of constant training and oversight, but also an example of how a company can do the right thing and hold itself accountable. By doing so, Princess Cruise Lines not only took responsibility for its actions, but sent a message to passengers, crew and regulators that it takes environmental compliance seriously and will take the necessary measures to strengthen its culture of compliance.

Regular corporate environmental compliance training is essential for not only educating staff and crew, but also for sending the message that environmental compliance is important.  Oversight and supervision also play a critical role in creating a culture of compliance.  While mistakes can happen even when staff is well educated, corporate oversight and supervision can prevent these mistakes from happening continually and address short cuts.  At TMS, we encourage the entire maritime industry to take lessons from the case – to strengthen their culture of compliance on board and on shore, and to address compliance shortfalls swiftly and directly with immediate action.


12-02-2016 at 5:59