In one of the largest Clean Water Act settlements in Virginia's Eastern District, Omega Protein, Inc., agreed in June to pay $7.5 million in fines after investigators found a history of pollution among the company's vessels operating out of the Chesapeake Bay.

A $2 million portion of the fine is a donation to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and will be used toward projects benefiting the Bay.

Texas-based Omega operates the largest commercial fishing fleet on the Atlantic Coast out of its Reedville, VA, hub, from which crews harvest the small, oily menhaden for heart-healthy Omega-3 fish oil and fishmeal products. Omega is among the largest producers in the world of both products.

Along with the fines, the company agreed to a probation period of three years that will entail heightened oversight of its practices by the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies involved in overseeing fishing permits or investigating environmental violations.

Omega spokesman Ben Landry said the company has a compliance plan in place that better equips its vessels and crews to meet the regulatory requirements. He said there had been confusion in the past, for example, about where "three nautical miles from shore" began based on the use of different maps from those used by the agencies.

"Moving forward, ensuring that our vessels are in full compliance is our top priority," Landry said.

The company agreed to findings that its boats routinely discharged a fish waste-and-water mixture known as "bail" less than three nautical miles from the shore from 2008 to 2010. At the time, Omega's Reedville fleet consisted of about 10 fishing vessels that sailed more than 100 days per year on average.

If the fish waste is not mixed with other chemicals or solutions, such discharges are permitted beyond the three-mile marker. But officials found that the boats' waste was at times mixed with caustic pollutants and commonly discharged into the Chesapeake Bay.

Court records also showed that the fishing fleet was configured in such a way that fostered the discharge of oily wastewater directly into the sea for a 17-month period ending in September 2010.

Neil H. MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement that the "significant" financial penalty levied against such a large producer "reflects the seriousness of these charges and our commitment to protecting the waterways."

Joining forces

David G. McLeod, Jr., special agent in charge with the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division for the mid-Atlantic, said the success of this case — and the working relationships developed among agencies while investigating it — is helping to fuel the revival of a Tidewater Environmental Enforcement Taskforce, one of several regional teams focused on collaborating and sharing investigative resources.

The Taskforce for the Eastern District, which is still being formed, will encompass at least a dozen agencies, including local police and fire departments, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Transportation.

"Because with 168 EPA agents nationwide, we have to work smart," McLeod said of the strengthened partnership.

He added that the EPA's investigative force is down from the 200 agents mandated by the Oil Pollution Act, "so we are limited with what we can do."

The Omega case, which unfolded over a four-year period, speaks to the EPA's need to work with other agencies that are already on the lookout for environmental or other offenders.

The Southern Environmental Law Center first raised a red flag with the EPA about Omega's practices at the end of 2009. Omega officials had provided information to the courts as part of unrelated litigation over the injury of a fishing boat crewmember. That information, which the SELC reviewed through court documents, also implicated the company in fishing practices that violated pollution regulations.

McLeod said the EPA's Ocean and Dredge Disposal Program initially looked into the allegations. The EPA's criminal side first learned of these allegations in March of 2010, and Landry said Omega was notified that year that there would be an investigation into its disposal of bail water.

But no charges had been filed when, in February 2011, Coast Guard officials boarded one of the company's boats as part of an Operation Clean Sweep patrol. The patrol was launched to reduce pollution incidents among vessels and facilities in the Hampton Roads area, said Lt. Scott McBride, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 5th District.

The Coast Guard inspectors that boarded the boat saw oily mixtures in the machinery space bilges, the lowest compartments of a vessel, and determined that pumps aboard the vessel had been aligned to foster the discharge of oily water directly into the sea, in violation of the Clean Water Act, according to court documents. The vessel lacked other measures required by the act to prevent pollution from ships to separate, monitor and record the discharge of oily waters.

The ongoing investigations culminated in the U.S. Attorney's Office filing criminal charges in March of this year, to which Omega pleaded guilty.

'A couple miles short'

The company's process used fresh water to "bail" the fish from the vessels and into the processing plant in Reedville. The bail water often contains fish scales, fins and excrement — nutrients that can throw off the balance in the Chesapeake Bay and draw oxygen out of the water.

Omega used two water boats to transport the bail water out to sea, where the Clean Water Act permits it to be discharged beyond three nautical miles from shore. But court records show that the boats routinely failed to go beyond the three-mile mark before discharging the waste.

Landry said the boats would travel around 60 miles from the Reedville base in attempts to abide by this law, but "come a couple miles short of where the Coast Guard determined the discharge point should be."

"Certainly that's our fault and we take full responsibility, but those (violations) are based on confusion and us not being clear," he said.

The EPA's McLeod pointed out that such shortcuts, besides being harmful to water quality and wildlife in the Bay, also can provide an unfair economic advantage to fishing companies.

"Our intent is never to put anybody out of business. It simply is (that) if you're violating environmental laws by cutting corners, you're creating an unfair advantage," McLeod said.

He said there has been an uptick in reports of alleged criminal activity among fishing and merchant vessels in recent years, and he attributes some of that to economic factors.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say the economic environment we all face may be driving that, but I dare say it may have something to do with it," he said.

This is not the first time Omega has come under scrutiny from the Bay community, where conservationists and recreational fishermen have long wanted to limit or ban menhaden fishing. Atlantic menhaden are filter feeders in the Chesapeake Bay and are food for several other species.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission placed its first-ever limit on menhaden catches at the end of last year, voting to reduce by 20 percent the amount of menhaden fishermen can catch along the coast to a total allowable catch of 170,800 metric tons a year.

Landry said that Omega — still the largest menhaden-fishing company on the Atlantic — has reduced the number of vessels operating here to about seven boats because of regulatory harvest measures. Between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the company still operates about 30 fishing vessels.

"We're unique, so it puts us under the microscope a little bit closer," Landry said. "We certainly look forward to regaining the public's trust that we're good environmental stewards."