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Federal appeals court hears Va. coal ship case

LEWISBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- A federal appeals court will hear arguments Tuesday in the case of a Maltese-flagged coal ship that has been detained in Virginia since April.

The panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is meeting in Lewisburg, W.Va.

The U.S. Coast Guard detained the ship and its roughly 20-member crew April 19 over alleged environmental violations.

Last month, a federal judge in Virginia berated the federal government as he ordered the ship freed for a $1.5 million bond — half of what the Coast Guard originally demanded.

"In more than thirty years on the bench, this Court can recall seeing no greater disregard for due process, nor any more egregious abdication of the reasonable exercise of discretion," U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar wrote in an opinion.

The Coast Guard appealed his ruling, sending the case to the 4th Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Va., but periodically hears oral arguments in other areas within its five-state jurisdiction.

A federal grand jury indicted the ship's owner, operator and chief engineer last month for allegedly trying to hide the violations. The charges include conspiracy, falsification of records and obstruction of justice.

The ship loaded at Norfolk Southern Corp.'s Lamberts Point terminal on April 14. The following day as Coast Guard personnel conducted a routine safety examination of the ship, a crewmember passed a note to an inspector claiming the vessel's oily water separator had been bypassed and that oily bilge water had been discharged overboard.

The crewmember provided photos of a makeshift pump and hose, claiming they were used to discharge the substance. The crewmember led inspectors to the items and they were confiscated along with additional evidence.

On April 19, the Coast Guard informed the port that the ship's departure clearance was being withheld. It has been tied up at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal since then while the case makes its way through the court.