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A small oil spill off the coast of Nova Scotia earlier this year has resulted in a Canada Steamship Lines bulk carrier facing one of the largest fines ever handed out for ocean pollution in Canadian waters.

Provincial Court Judge Michael Sherar ordered the company yesterday to pay $125,000 after the CSL Atlas pleaded guilty to discharging 92 litres of an oily substance into a sensitive marine ecosystem about 80 nautical miles south of Halifax in March. The fine matches a penalty meted against the Baltic Confidence in February.

The fine levied against the CSL Atlas was trumpeted by Transport Canada officials yesterday, who insisted that it has established a benchmark for penalties against ships that dump oily bilge into Canadian waters, a practice that kills as many as 300,000 sea birds a year. The fine includes a $50,000 assessment that will go toward dealing with environmental damage caused by marine pollution.

"This should send a strong message out to shipping companies that it does not pay to pollute in Canadian waters," Paul Doucet, a spokesman for Transport Canada, told reporters outside the courthouse.

The crew of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans surveillance plane spotted an oily slick 15 metres wide and more than 40 kilometres long behind the CSL Atlas on March 6, Crown Prosecutor James Martin told the court yesterday.

While a ship's officer initially denied that the slick was coming from the CSL Atlas, the plane crew took photographs and the ship was boarded by U.S. Coast Guard officials when it arrived in Georgia on March 10.

Many ships are believed to deliberately dump oily bilge in the ocean to avoid costs of as much as $10,000 for disposal of the wastes in Canadian ports. Because of the size of the ocean and the limited surveillance capability of Canadian enforcement agencies, it is often difficult to apprehend polluters.

In the case of the CSL Atlas, federal environment officials were unable to find any marine life affected by the spill. But every year, thousands of birds die after coming in contact with small amounts of oil and wash up on beaches throughout Atlantic Canada.

Mr. Doucet told reporters that the pollution incident was "at best a case of gross negligence and potentially a deliberate act."

After the incident, the ship's operator pleaded guilty to discharging an oily substance and fired the ship's engineer and the officer who was in charge at the time of the incident, a lawyer for Canada Steamship Lines, Wiley Spicer, told the court.

He said the company has improved its waste-water filtration and separation systems, and sent information to its ships about the proper way to handle oily waste.

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