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4th Circuit: Coast Guard properly detaining coal ship

NORFOLK, Va. — The Coast Guard is properly detaining a Maltese-flagged coal ship and its 20-member crew on alleged environmental violations, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The Antonis G. Pappadakis has been kept in Virginia since April and its owner contends the bond the Coast Guard set for its release was arbitrary and unreasonable. The Coast Guard had agreed to a $2.5 million bond for the ship’s release, but Angelex Ltd. asked the U.S. District Court in Norfolk to set it lower. Over the Coast Guard’s objections, a Norfolk judge set the ship’s release at $1.5 million.

But the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Richmond overturned that ruling, saying the lower court didn’t have the proper jurisdiction to intervene. Under U.S. law, the Coast Guard has “broad discretion to deny bond altogether, and it can dictate the terms of any bond that it may accept,” the appeals court wrote.

“The reasonableness of the Coast Guard’s decision cannot be determined pro forma in a vacuum, but only in the context of the standards intended by Congress. As a result, this is a situation where the statute at issue is “‘drawn in such broad terms that . . . there is no law to apply,’“ the appeals court wrote in its ruling.

The ordeal began when the ship loaded at Norfolk Southern Corp.’s Lamberts Point terminal on April 14. It was set to deliver its cargo to Brazil, but the following day, as Coast Guard personnel conducted a routine safety examination, a crewmember passed a note to an inspector claiming the vessel’s oily water separator had been bypassed and that oily bilge water had been discharged overboard.

The crewmember provided photos of a makeshift pump and hose, claiming they were used to discharge the substance. The crewmember led inspectors to the items and they were confiscated along with additional evidence.

On April 19, the Coast Guard informed the port that the ship’s departure clearance was being withheld. It has been tied up at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal since then while the case makes its way through the court.