Environmental protection versus maritime commerce: are oil spill response regulations going too far?



Steven Candito, President, National Response Corporation, Great River, NY, USA


Examination of several significant US oil spills over the last five years reveals a pattern: a series of reactionary legislation that may negatively impact marine commerce at a time when the industry, particularly our ports, can least afford the economic hardship. Do these additional regulations add meaningful environmental protection or have we reached a point of diminishing returns?

2003 Buzzards Bay, MA

A barge grounds, spilling 98,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil.

Oil Spill Response: Cost: US$36 Million. At its peak, 700 personnel were involved in the clean up.

Legislative Response: The Massachusetts Oil Spill Act which requires up to a US$1 billion State Certificate of Financial Responsibility (COFR), double hulls on certain vessels, mandatory state pilots, tug escorts, vessel routing requirements and oil spill response and prevention fees. These State regulations may be in conflict with US regulations and were challenged by the US Coast Guard (USCG) as unconstitutional. In a related move, the USCG passed its own regulations for the region. The legal challenges between the state and federal governments continue.

2004 Seattle, WA

A barge overflows spilling 4,800 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

Oil Spill Response: Cost: US$4.5 million. Resources included 250 personnel, 17,000’ of boom, 14 skimmers and 24 boats.

Legislative Response: Washington passed regulations focused on pre-booming vessels transferring cargo. These regulations raised safety concerns such as whether vessels transferring more flammable cargo (e.g. gasoline) should be pre-boomed and whether it is safe for personnel to pre-boom during adverse weather and/or sea conditions.

2005 Delaware River, DE

A tanker strikes an uncharted object spilling 265,000 gallons of crude oil.

Oil Spill Response: Cost: US$165 Million. Resources included 1,700 personnel, two Oil Spill Response Vessels (OSRVs), 191 smaller vessels, 20 oil skimmers and 110,000’ of boom. Legislative Response: The federal government enacts the Delaware River Protection Act raising federal COFR limits for single hull tank and nontank vessels, while providing incentives to double hull operators by not raising their COFR limits as much. It also includes notification requirements for objects lost overboard; as well as funding for the USCG and NOAA to develop sunken oil recovery technology.

2007 San Francisco, CA

A nontank vessel strikes the Oakland Bay Bridge spilling 54,000 gallons of bunker fuel.

Oil Spill Response: Cost: US$61 million plus, since this response is ongoing. Resources included 1,400 personnel, 41 boats, 38,200’ of boom and seven oil skimmers that totalled 75,000 barrels per day oil removal capacity.

Legislative Response: Historically, California has some of the most stringent oil spill response regulations in the United States, with relatively new shoreline protection requirements that exceed federal containment and recovery regulations. Nevertheless, extreme media attention and political fallout have given rise to additional regulatory proposals. On the federal side, there are proposals to require double hulls for nontank vessels, further increase COFR limits, and improve the Vessel Traffic System (VTS) with mandatory routing procedures. California State legislators are calling for an increase in the response resource requirements for nontank vessels such that they meet more stringent existing tank vessel requirements and mandatory mutual aid agreements.

Pending non-event driven legislation

The USCG has pending a number of spill response requirements that were initiated many years ago. These regulations have been delayed as the USCG focused on post 9/11 homeland security, diminishing its ability to address environmental protection. The pending regulations include dispersant, salvage & fire fighting, and federal nontank vessel requirements, which became law on August 8, 2005 but are still awaiting specific regulations. The USCG had advised that nontank vessel regulations were a lower priority than either dispersants or salvage and fire fighting requirements; however, the non tank vessel requirements may now take on a higher priority in light of the San Francisco spill.

Where are we as a result of this reactionary legislation?

Resistance occurred last year when the two primary oil spill response organisations operating in California, National Response Corporation (NRC) and Marine Spill Response Corporation, concluded that it was not cost effective to meet California’s shoreline protection requirements. The vessel activity was minimal in certain ports such that the fees needed to support the additional response equipment would have been substantial for the vessels that operate in those ports. As a result, California regulators admitted: “The unintended consequences from passing the new regulations is that as of September 1, 2007, plan holders currently do not have adequate shoreline protection coverage for covered vessels entering non-High Volume ports. Therefore, marine commerce trading in the harbours of Humboldt Bay, Monterey Bay, Port Hueneme, and San Diego may be in violation of the current regulations.”

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