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Key Marine Oil Pollution Laws in the United States


BACKGROUND: The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) was passed by Congress in 1980. APPS is the US law that implements MARPOL. It makes it a crime to knowingly violate the oil pollution provisions of MARPOL.

The APPS regulations governing oil pollution can be found at Title 33 Code of Federal Regulations, part 151.
Read regulations here


1. APPS/ MARPOL requires that oily waste water on ships be processed by a properly working oily water separator and oil content monitor and that any discharge contains no more than 15 parts per million of oil.

2. APPS/ MARPOL requires that all discharges be accurately recorded in an oil record book.


The operation of large marine vessels generates large quantities of oily sludge and oily waste. Engine departments produce oil-contaminated bilge waste when water mixes in the bottom of the vessel, known as the bilges, with oil that has leaked from machinery, engines, and lubrication or fuel systems.

These oily mixtures must be collected and stored in tanks. They can also be processed on-board to separate the water from the oil using a pollution-prevention device known as an Oily Water Separator.

After passing through the Oily Water Separator, bilge waste water containing fifteen parts per million or less of oil (as measured by an Oil Content Monitor) may be discharged overboard. When properly installed and used, a sensor in the Oil Content Minitor detects the presence of oil in concentrations greater than 15 parts per million and automatically shuts down any overboard discharge. It should also sound an audible alarm in the engineering room.

Oil Record Book used as evidence

Photo Credit: Common Good Productions


Ships are required by APPS and MARPOL to maintain an Oil Record Book. The disposal of oil residue and oily mixtures, slops from bilges, and oily bilge water should be recorded in this book. Full and accurate notes must be kept about the discharge of this material overboard, by incineration, or by other forms of disposal without delay by the person in charge of the operations.

The oil record book must also keep records of any emergency, accidental, or other exceptional discharges of oil or mixtures, including a statement of the circumstances of, and reasons for, the discharge. This book must be available for inspection at all times.

ALERT! Maintaining a false oil record book and lying to US Coast Guard officials is one of the most common charges brought against polluting ships. Lying to a Coast Guard officer, presenting a falsified oil record book, hiding evidence, or telling seafarers not to tell the truth can all be felony offenses and can lead to heavy fines and imprisonment.

WHO IT COVERS: APPS covers almost all US-flagged and foreign commercial ships in US navigable waters. For US-flagged ships, APPS also covers their actions in waters around the world.

PENALTIES FOR INDIVIDUALS: Violating APPS is a class D felony. Individuals can receive a fine to up to $200,000 per count or up to twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Individuals can also be imprisoned for up to six years.

PENALTIES FOR CORPORATIONS: Corporations that violate APPS can face fines of up to $500,000 per count or up to twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.

WHISTLEBLOWER PROVISION: People who provide information about violations to APPS that leads to a conviction can receive up to half of the fine. In recent years, awards have ranged from $40,000 to more than $400,000.

Whistleblower provision -- 33 U.S.C, Section 1908 (A)


BACKGROUND: The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to protect fish and wildlife by ensuring water quality. One section addresses oil pollution and bans any discharge of oil into the navigable waters of the US or any waters that affect natural resources in the US exclusive economic zone in harmful quantities. The Clean Water Act was amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following the devastation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

ALERT! Under the Clean Water Act/ OPA 90 a “harmful quantity” of oil is any amount that causes a film or sheen to appear on the surface of the water or causes sludge to be deposited beneath the surface.


1. It is a crime to negligently or knowingly discharge a “harmful quantity” of oil into US waters.

2. Failing to report an oil spill to the government is also a crime. Any “person in charge” on a vessel that has discharged oil must immediately report the spill to the National Response Center.

PENALTIES FOR INDIVIDUALS: Individuals who fail to notify the federal government about an oil spill or discharge can be fined up to $200,000 or up to twice the gross gain or loss and may be imprisoned for up to 5 years.

A negligent violation of the Clean Water Act is a misdemeanor and can result in up to one year in prison.

A knowing failure to report a spill or a leak is a felony and can result in up to 5 years in prison.

PENALTIES FOR CORPORATIONS: Corporations can be fined up to $500,000 and up to twice the gross gain or loss for failing to notify a federal agency. Ship owners are also responsible for the cost of any damages caused by the oil and any removal costs.


The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of oil and other hazardous substances within the navigable waters of the US or within any waters that affect natural resources in the US Exclusive Economic Zone.

Under the Law of the Sea treaty, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a sea zone over which a state has special rights to the exploration and use of marine resources, including the production of energy from water and wind. It stretches from the seaward edge of the state's territorial sea out to 200 nautical miles from its coast.

The United States' exclusive economic zone is the largest in the world, covering 11,351,000 km2. Areas of its EEZ are located not only along the eastern and western seaboards and Gulf of Mexico-bordering region of the continental United States but also in the Caribbean Sea, Pacific Ocean, and Arctic Ocean.

The US’s EEZ extends 200 miles from shore

Photo Credit: B1mbo


The Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 is mostly concerned with ensuring safety aboard vessels in US waters. It is a crime for “a person in charge” to fail to report a hazardous condition onboard a ship to the Coast Guard.

“Hazardous condition” is defined in this act as “any condition that may adversely affect the safety of any vessel, bridge, structure, or shore area or the environmental quality of any port, harbor, or navigable waterway of the United States.”

Failing to report a hazardous condition is a felony.

Penalties: For individuals, up to $200,000 per incident and up to five year in prison and for corporations up to $500,000 per incident.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship under federal surveillance

Photo Credit: US Department of Justice


Royal Caribbean Lines

The first major court case under OPA 90 relating to intentional pollution was the 1999 prosecution of Royal Caribbean cruise lines.

The investigation began in 1993 when Coast Guard surveillance planes spotted oily slicks trailing behind the big white cruise ships. Prosecutors analyzed video footage of the oily water separator and noticed that pipes would appear and disappear between inspections.

The evidence against Royal Caribbean mounted until the company pled guilty to fleet-wide discharges of oily waste in six jurisdictions across the US. The offences even continued while the ships were under investigation throughout the mid-90’s. Crewmembers were so used to inventing information for the oil record book that they referred to it as the “Eventrybok,” or fairy tale book in Norwegian.

Royal Caribbean was ordered to pay an 18 million dollar fine to be split among the six districts in which pollution had occurred. The unprecedentedly large fine was intended to send a message to the maritime industry that the United States was taking a hard stance against oil pollution.

The Pacific Ruby, one of twelve OSG ships found dumping oil in the ocean

Photo Credit: US Department of Justice

Overseas Shipping Group (OSG)

The largest fine ever resulting from violations of APPS, CWA, and OPA was incurred by the Overseas Shipholding Group (OSG). In 2006, after being found guilty of 33 felonies in 6 judicial districts, OSG had to pay a fine of 37 million dollars for their crimes.

In order to hide their crimes, OSG resorted to dumping under the cover of night. Oily water separators were also flushed with clean water to trick the sensor into reporting that no oil was being discharged. When in port, crewmembers hid bypass pipes and false oil record books were presented to Coast Guard investigators.

The investigation began in 2001 when the Coast Guard in Boston received a tip from Canadian authorities that had inspected one of OSG’s tankers, M/T Uranus. An investigation revealed that the M/T Uranus had discharged 150,000 gallons of oily waste off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts without accounting for it in their oil record book.

The tip from the Canadian authorities, along with information collected from twelve crewmember whistleblowers, led the Coast Guard to catch twelve OSG ships falsifying records in six different ports throughout the US; Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Wilmington, and Beaumont.

The $37 million fine was made up of a $27.8 million criminal fine and a $9.8 million community service payment to be divided among the districts. $800,000 from the criminal fine was contributed to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for the cleanup of future spills. The whistleblowers received $437,500 each.

Evidence photo of oily bypass pipe

Photo Credit: US Department of Justice

Evergreen Shipping

The second-largest fine ever incurred in a case of deliberate vessel pollution – $25 million - was paid by Evergreen International in 2001.

Evergreen’s crimes were first discovered in March, 2001 after a team of US Coast Guard officials traced a 500-gallon spill in the Columbia River to the Ever Group, one of Evergreen’s ships. Several months later, an illegal discharge pipe was discovered on the Ever Given, another ship owned by the company. This led to a mass investigation of Evergreen vessels in Los Angeles, CA; Newark, NJ; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; and Charleston, SC. The investigation discovered that at least seven more ships were also illegally dumping oily waste, falsifying records, and lying to Coast Guard officials.

The $25 million sentence was distributed equally to each of the five states, with $10 million allocated for environmental community-service projects in the regions.


In recent years there have been several instances of ships being banned from US ports because of MARPOL violations.

In 2010 the US Coast Guard banned a Norwegian-flagged ship from US ports for three years and revoked its certificate of compliance. This case was the first time an individual ship was banned from the US for a MARPOL violation.

In 2011, three companies pled guilty in violation of APPS and PWSA to thirty-two felony counts. Both the companies and the owner of these ships were banned from trading in the United States for five years. This was the first time that a ship owner was banned.

In the past, it was exceptionally rare for a ship or a company to be banned outright from US waters. The Justice Department’s increased commitment to protecting the environment has led to stricter enforcement and more severe penalties for intentional polluters.