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AS-EPA calls on feds to include the territory in future enforcement actions

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Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The American Samoa Government has called on the U.S Justice Department (USDOJ) not to “exclude ASG from future enforcement action” and to keep the territory in mind when and if there are negations involving violations of federal law in territorial waters, says American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency director Fa’amao Asalele, in a comment letter submitted to USDOJ last month.

The Dec. 24 comment-letter was in response to USDOJ’s request for public comments on the proposed consent decree reached late last year between the federal government and defendants — San Diego-based JM Fisheries LLC, G.S. Fisheries Inc., the companies’ manager, and the chief engineer of the commercial fishing vessel Capt. Vincent Gann.

As previously reported by Samoa News, the defendants — under the proposed consent decree — agreed to pay a total of $725,000 in civil penalties to settle federal Clean Water Act claims related to oil pollution violations by the vessel.

The companies and their manager also agreed to perform corrective measures to prevent future Clean Water Act violations. The Federal government alleged in the complaint that on April 20, 2018, the defendants discharged oil and oily mixtures from the fishing vessel Capt. Vincent Gann’s engine room bilge into Pago Pago Harbor while performing repairs on the vessel.

USDOJ documents filed last week with the federal court in Honolulu state that during the public comment period — from Nov. 24 to Dec. 24 — the federal government received one comment, which was from ASEPA and was supportive of the terms of the settlement and did not oppose entry of the settlement but rather sought federal coordination with the American Samoa government in future environmental enforcement efforts.

USDOJ also included in its filing ASEPA’s comment-letter, which notes that the territory is located in the Pacific Ocean and traveling here from the U.S mainland requires flying via Hawaii — for a five-hour flight to Pago Pago.

And the same goes for flying to New Zealand or Australia, and the journey here from Asia is farther still.

“Too often this leaves the American Samoa Government (ASG) to be considered by stakeholders living in the fifty States as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, which is what appears to have happened in this instance,” Asalele, the ASEPA director, wrote in the comment-letter.

While the incident, an oil spill of 500 gallons of black crude oil from a dilapidated ship, “occurred in the beautiful Pago Pago harbor on American Samoa,” he argued that ASG was not notified of this action until public comments were sought on the settlement.

Additionally, ASG was not contacted by the federal government at any point, “which means we have had no say in the negotiation of this agreement and are now left to make public comment as outsiders.”

Furthermore: “We were not contacted with offers of guidance or assistance, or to negotiate a Supplemental Environmental Project in  undertaking local action to ensure our valuable natural resources were protected from this incident and shored up against future harm.

Again, ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” he declared and noted that ASG does not object to the settlement agreement that has been reached, and acknowledges that it’s in the Territory’s best interest for the proposed settlement in this matter to be finalized.

He also said that ASG supports the provisions of the settlement that provide JM Fisheries with remedial assistance to prevent any future spills from the Capt. Vincent Gann or other vessels in their fleet, and provisions that require payment of a substantial amount into the US Oil Spill Trust Fund as remuneration for the incident that occurred in our harbor.

According to the director, ASG has taken the time to write this comment to ensure that USDOJ “does not exclude ASG from future enforcement actions.”

“Another reality of the remote location of our island is that we have very limited manpower resources, and therefore we welcome any and all assistance, guidance, or resources you have at your disposal,” he said.

And “ASG further welcomes you to take the flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago to experience the natural beauty of the only U.S state or territory in the Southern Hemisphere. Once we are no longer out of sight, it will be much easier to keep us in mind,” Asalele concluded. The letter is also signed by Assistant Attorney General, Stephanie Rogers.

In filings, USDOJ requested the court to enter the consent decree as “final judgment” of the court, without a hearing or other proceedings. And the defendants have consented to this action.

Court records show that U.S District Court Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi signed the decree on Jan. 21 and the matter is now closed.