This article was originally published here by author Cole Waterman
BAY CITY, MI – A little more than a year after charges were first filed against them, two men alleged to have dumped oily waste from a towing vessel into Lake Huron have had their cases dismissed. The dismissal comes just days before they were to go before a federal jury.
U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington on Monday, June 5, granted the prosecution’s request to dismiss charges against Jeffrey W. Patrick and William J. Harrigan. Both men faced one count of oil and hazardous substance liability, with Harrigan also facing a charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
The only reason given in court records for the prosecutors’ request is “that the ends of justice would best be served by this dismissal.”
Patrick and Harrigan’s trial was to begin Tuesday, June 13, at the federal courthouse in downtown Bay City.
A grand jury indicted Patrick in May 2016; Harrigan was indicted the following month. The alleged offenses occurred in the summer of 2014, when Patrick served as chief engineer and Harrigan as first assistant engineer aboard the 498-ton towing vessel Victory.
According to a complaint authored by Christopher R. Whitmarsh, a special agent of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, an engine room crewmember aboard the Victory reported unlawful discharges of oily waste had been made into Lake Huron on June 30, 2014. At the time, the Victory was northbound in Lake Huron, near Presque Isle.
The same day, a Coast Guard helicopter flew over the area and located the Victory. Though no oil was in the ship’s immediate vicinity, inspection of its wake revealed two sheens of waste on the water, according to the complaint. The first sheen was about 38 nautical miles east of Cheboygan, having an estimated size of 20 feet by 600 feet, the complaint states. The second sheen was found about five nautical miles east of Alpena, estimated to be 50 feet by 50 feet.
The Coast Guard conducted an inspection of the Victory in Hay Lake on the St. Mary’s River. They found evidence and obtained statements from a crew member that oily waste was emptied into the Great Lakes. Samples taken from the discharge outlets revealed traces of petroleum, the complaint states.
“Based on my training and experience, I know that the cofferdams and the discharges outlets for the cofferdams should not contain petroleum,” Whitmarsh wrote. “The cofferdams system should be isolated from the bilge system and should contain only lake water used to cool components of the engine room.”
The crew member subsequently told Whitmarsh he saw Harrigan, Patrick’s immediate subordinate, manually pumping oily water overboard. The crew member also said Patrick told him not to say anything when the Coast Guard boarded the Victory.
The crew member provided Whitmarsh with photographs he took of bypass equipment that had been set up on the Victory to discharge oily waste overboard.
Harrigan’s indictment states the discharges usually occurred at night to make it difficult for the resulting sheen to be seen by others.
A prior motion to dismiss filed by Patrick’s defense counsel states investigators did not have “any samples from the purported contamination of Lake Huron, despite the Coast Guard helicopter pilots locating, and documenting, the precise locations of these alleged oil sheens. Stated another way, the government, despite numerous Coast Guard officials observing something purported to be oil sheens, never actually obtained samples of this allegedly contaminated water from Lake Huron itself.”
The federal Clean Water Act prohibits a vessel from discharging harmful quantities of oil or hazardous substances into U.S. navigable waters. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations define a harmful quantity of oil as any amount that causes a visible sheen on the water.