By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian shipping agent for a vessel that offloaded wood waste containing an invasive beetle species yesterday pledged to fight impending Customs charges and efforts to make it “a scapegoat”.
Elbert Hepburn, Elnet Maritime’s chief executive, voiced optimism that “we’ll be exonerated with the right investigation” days after multiple government agencies announced a probe into how the Pan Jasmine cargo ship was able to offload infested wood without their approval.
Mr Hepburn blamed a marine logistics service provider Elnet Maritime he says failed to properly inform the Government’s Department of Environmental Health Services.
“We’re confident that with the right investigation and what not we’ll be exonerated and it’ll be looked at for what it is,” Mr Hepburn told Tribune Business of the controversy that has ensnared the shipping agent. “I’m honestly not that concerned because I’m really confident that we can get through this.
“I know to the best of our ability that we followed all the rules and regulations. I never expected any form of communication or letter from Bahamas Customs. I figured that Environmental Health would be the party to come after myself and Lucayan Maritime Services. For Customs to come after us was a shock.”
Mr Hepburn said he had never communicated with, or involved, Customs in the removal of a ship’s dunnage, slop or other waste before as Elnet Maritime’s contacts had always been with the Department of Environmental Health Services or the Port Department.
And, while the shipping agent had facilitated the filing of a C1 declaration that the Pan Jasmine had no ballast or cargo when it arrived in waters off Freeport on Saturday, July 24, no Customs officer had attended the vessel -m something that is common practice.
The Government, in a statement on Friday, confirmed that “no ballast or cargo” was declared on the vessel’s behalf. However, Mr Hepburn said Customs’ July 30 letter is now alleging that the dunnage waste is actually cargo, and that Elnet Maritime “imported in a restricted good” - namely waste wood - even though this is neither on the “restricted list” or the Pan Jasmine’s cargo manifest.
“They [Customs] gave us a list. I didn’t review it at all. I gave it to my lawyer,” he disclosed. “Bahamas Customs sent us a letter on Friday with a slew of various charges, which we intend to fight through ParrisWhittaker. The charges are saying we had cargo we didn’t declare, but it was dunnage we had to dispose of.
“Mr Darville [of Save the Bays] raised the alarm on Thursday, and I had a one-two minute conversation with Customs on Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon they had a slew of charges. We’re trying to figure out what type of investigation was done.
“They were being reactive rather than proactive and finding a solution. They want to find a scapegoat. We’re not going to allow them to make us a scapegoat. We understands where this operation has gone wrong. Had Lucayan Maritime Services done their due diligence, this operation would more than likely still have taken place” with the necessary approvals from the relevant government agencies.
Mr Hepburn suggested that the Government was looking to pin the blame for the controversy on someone, and that Elnet Maritime as a Bahamas-based company and shipping agent represented an easy target in efforts to appease persons over the controversy.
Voicing optimism that the Asian beetles had been incinerated and destroyed, and pose no threat to Grand Bahama’s forestry product and landscape that is still trying to recover from Dorian’s ravages, Mr Hepburn said the disposal of ship slops (oils), dunnage and other waste had long been part of Freeport’s maritime industry.
With trash often amounting to as much as 10-15 cubic metres, he added that such disposals were regular work features for shipping agents and their sub-contractors plus their sub-contractors. And Mr Hepburn said they were dealing with materials “rejected by the United States) on every single occasion.
“This happens every week. No one makes a big deal about it, but because Joe Darville and a few activists got up in arms about it the Government feels they need to respond,” one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this newspaper.
Mr Hepburn said Elnet Maritime was contacted to act as the Pan Jasmine’s agent by its owner/operators when it had to bunker or refuel in Freeport. He was asked “en route” if the dunnage could be taken off in Freeport, and contracted Lucayan Maritime Services to perform this task.
The sub-contractor was supposed to obtain the necessary approvals, and make arrangements, with both the Department of Environmental Health Services (DEHS) and Sanitation Services. However, it only did so with the latter so the dunnage could be dumped in the landfill.
The Pan Jasmine arrived off Freeport on Saturday, July 24, and departed on the Monday. Mr Hepburn said he only became aware of the Asian beetle incident three days later on July 29 following the voice notes and messages being issued by Mr Darville.
He responded by apologising to DEHS official, Bertha McPhee-Duncanson, and followed up with Sanitation Services to ensure the wood was properly disposed of and destroyed. However, Mr Hepburn has yet to speak to Lucayan Maritime Services given that there is now an investigation ongoing.
He added that laws and regulations regarding the disposal of ships’ waste will now be strengthened following this incident. “As a result of this there will be some changes in the industry by people who want to prevent this from happening,” Mr Hepburn predicted.
The Government, in its statement, said “an inter-agency committee” featuring the Department of Public Prosecutions, Bahamas Customs, the Royal Bahamas Police Force, the Department of Environmental Health Services, the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Department of Forestry, had been formed to investigate the matter.
“The suspected dunnage was offloaded without the prior knowledge, consent or approval of the relevant government agencies including Bahamas Customs, the Department of Environmental Health Services and the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources,” the statement said.
“Once the various government agencies became aware that the cargo was at the landfill the following steps were immediately taken. A private company was hired to fumigate two remaining bins at the site and the surrounding area as well as the barge that transported the dunnage from the vessel to shore.
“All of the dunnage was fumigated at the landfill along with other debris that was in the immediate vicinity. This was under the immediate supervision of the Department of Environmental Health Services, the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources, Royal Bahamas Police Fire Department, and the leadership team of Sanitation Services,” it continued.
“After the fumigation process, the incineration is being carried out of the dunnage. The team identified all bins that were used to transport the dunnage and fumigation of these bins have commenced. The Bahamas government takes this breach of its laws and procedures seriously, and will pursue this matter to the fullest extent of the law. An investigation is presently underway.”