Greenpeace Charged with Violating Alaska Environmental Laws

Published October 1, 2004

The environmental activist group Greenpeace faces civil and criminal penalties for allegedly disobeying an order to keep one of its ships, the Arctic Sunrise, at anchor after it sailed into Alaska waters without an oil-discharge prevention plan and a certificate of financial responsibility.

Ship Sped Away from Authorities

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) requires non-tank vessels larger than 400 gross tons to file an oil-spill response plan application five days before entering state waters. State law also requires a ship of Arctic Sunrise’s size to provide insurance information and an application for a certificate of financial responsibility in case of an oil spill, at least 15 days before entering state waters.

The ship arrived in Alaskan waters July 13 without the required documents. The next day, the DEC faxed the crew a notice of violation and ordered the ship to stay at anchor in Ketchikan until the paperwork was completed. However, one hour after the vessel agent signed an affidavit saying he had read the letter and would comply with the order, the ship left Ketchikan, according to Craig Wilson, section manager for financial responsibility and prevention initiatives at the DEC.

“They said they were moving to avoid cruise ships [which was allowed under the order], but they steamed west 18 hours,” Wilson said, calling the action the high-seas equivalent of a motorist speeding away from a police officer after being stopped for a moving violation.

Greenpeace Faces Serious Penalties

The DEC asked the Alaska attorney general to impose civil penalties and a criminal charge on the Arctic Sunrise’s master and vessel agent. Civil fines range from $500 to $100,000.

The criminal charge, for disobeying the order to stay at anchor, is a Class A misdemeanor. It carries a fine of up to $200,000 for the organization, and one year in jail and a $10,000 fine for the person directly responsible for the violation, Wilson said.

Wilson said he could not understand why the ship steamed out of Ketchikan in violation of the order.

“It’s not unheard of for a vessel to come in without a sea plan or certificate,” he said. “We typically resolve it in 24 hours. By close of business on July 15, Greenpeace was fully in compliance. They had everything they needed.”

The Greenpeace ship was carrying activists through Southeast Alaska to protest logging in the Tongass National Forest. It stayed in Alaska waters about three weeks, according to Wilson.

Greenpeace General Counsel Tom Wetterer said, “There clearly was a problem with paperwork and we took quick steps to rectify it. We were charged for criminal negligence and pleaded not guilty” at an arraignment in early August. The case is scheduled for trial October 19.

Wetterer said “a vast amount of paperwork” is required for ships the size of Arctic Sunrise, which measures nearly 163 feet long, has a gross weight of 949 tons, and carries a helicopter. The ship had all the documents that are required by the U.S. government and the Netherlands, where the ship is registered, he said.

“It’s not a friendly territory for us,” he said, referring to Alaska, “and we don’t find a lot of agents willing to give us a lot of help.”

Group Lobbied for the Laws it Violated

The actions of the ship’s master would appear to violate the spirit of a statement Greenpeace issued on November 13, 2003, commemorating the first anniversary of the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain.

“In order to prevent new oil spills,” said Paul Horsman of Greenpeace, “regulations need to force both the shipping industry and the charterers to operate under the highest standards of ships and crews.”

Wilson described Arctic Sunrise as a “really well-designed vessel with an icebreaker hull that carries 128,000 gallons of fuel.” The Greenpeace Web site says Arctic Sunrise was once a seal-hunting vessel the group had confronted in 1986 in Hobart, Tasmania to protest the French government’s construction of an airstrip through a penguin habitat in the Antarctic.

“A volunteer scaled the mast, unfurled the Greenpeace flag, and locked himself in the crow’s nest,” according to the Web site. “Despite this, Greenpeace bought the Arctic Sunrise in 1995 using a company called ‘Arctic Sunrise Ventures Ltd.,’ since the ship’s Norwegian owners would never have sold it to Greenpeace.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is an Illinois-based freelance writer.