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Shipping companies, captain to stand trial for Australia oil spill

An Australian court on Wednesday ordered four companies and the captain of a cargo ship to stand trial over a 2009 oil spill [BBC backgrounder] that resulted in more than 53,000 gallons of oil being spilled into the coastal waters surrounding Australia. The captain of the cargo ship was charged with disposal of oil in coastal waters and of not reporting the spill [AFP report] to the proper authorities. The companies, including co-owners of the cargo ship, UK firm Swire Navigation [corporate website] and Hong Kong firm Bluewind Shipping, were also charged with disposal of oil in coastal waters. The charges stem from an incident on the cargo ship Pacific Adventurer [AMSA backgrounder], where containers on the ship fell overboard during a storm, piercing the side of the ship and resulting in the oil being spilled. Prosecutors contend that the containers were improperly stored on the ship [CP report] and that the ship's captain acted recklessly when setting a particular course, despite reports of severe weather. Swire Navigation agreed last August to pay more than USD $21 million into a fund to compensate those affected by the spill. If convicted, the companies face fines of up to USD $1.48 million each, while the captain could face fines of USD $297,000.

The Australian court is not the first to apply criminal liability to oil spill cases. In March, a French court upheld [JURIST report] a lower court's 2008 decision finding French oil company Total [corporate website] and several other defendants criminally liable for an oil spill that occurred of the coast of Brittany in 1999. In April 2008, US federal prosecutors filed felony charges [indictment, PDF; press release] against Capt. John Joseph Cota, the California maritime pilot accused [JURIST report] in the November 2007 spill of approximately 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil in the San Francisco Bay. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] is also currently reviewing [JURIST report] whether any criminal or civil laws were violated by BP resulting in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive].

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