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Va. fleet assessed $7.5 million in US penalties

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- Omega Protein Inc. was assessed $7.5 million in penalties Tuesday for discharging fish waste and pollutants into Chesapeake Bay waters where it operates a fleet of ships that haul in an oily fish called menhaden.

The Houston company, which operates its menhaden fleet out of Reedville, also was sentenced in U.S. District Court to three years' probation for two violations of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. attorney's office said in a statement.

The violations stem from Omega's actions between May 2008 and September 2010, when fish waste generated by its Reedville processing plant was discharged with pollutants in the bay.

The company is permitted to dispose of the waste — called "bail" — provided it is not mixed with any chemicals or other wastes and it is discharged beyond 3 nautical miles from shore. The bail contained pollutants from the processing plant and was discharged within the 3-mile limit, according to court records.

Oily bilge waste from Omega's fleet of ships also was pumped directly into the bay, the court records show.

Special agent David G. McLeod Jr., an enforcement chief with the Environmental Protection Agency, said Omega's actions "put wildlife and aquatic life at risk in our nation's largest estuary."

In a statement, Omega said the $7.5 million penalty included a $5.5 million fine and a $2 million payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund projects in Virginia related to the environmental health of the bay. Omega also will implement an environmental compliance program.

"The company has expended significant resources to strengthen its environmental compliance systems across its operations," CEO Bret Scholtes said in a statement.

Omega operates the so-called reduction fishery in the bay and in Atlantic waters for menhaden, a fish that has no food value for humans but is coveted by other species in the bay. The company processes the pudgy fish into Omega-3 oil supplements and into other products, such as animal feed.