Cantwell Introduces Comprehensive Oil Spill Prevention Legislation

Would update landmark 1990 oil spill bill, improve response, increase protections for sensitive areas, reduce risk of spills from human error

WASHINGTON, DC – Thursday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced comprehensive legislation to improve oil spill prevention and response, and implement long sought-after environmental safeguards to protect America’s waterways from contamination.  Cantwell’s bill strengthens and builds on the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed by Congress in response to the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

“This bill takes strong, commonsense steps to reduce the risk of catastrophic oil spills as well as smaller spills that continue to occur along our coastlines,” said Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard. “I’ll be the first to applaud efforts by the Coast Guard, states, and industry to dramatically reduce spills during the past 17 years.  But a single incident from a large vessel can be devastating, and while we’ve made significant progress, oil continues to be spilled and our fragile marine resources are still susceptible to a major disaster.”

Despite a drop in the overall number of spills since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the volume of oil spilled has not decreased.  In 1992, vessels spilled 665,432 gallons of oil.  But in 2004, vessels spilled 722,768 gallons. That same year, in U.S. waters, there were 36 spills from tank ships, 141 spills from barges, and 1,562 spills from other vessels, including cargo ships. 

Cantwell added, “With 15 billion gallons of oil passing through Washington state waters alone every year, we must remain vigilant and strengthen our oil spill safety net.  Our coasts and waterways sit at the heart of our way of life and provide thousands of jobs.   Investing in the protection of our marine environment and fishery resources will ensure vibrant coastal communities.”

Puget Sound is one of the world’s most complex and congested waterways, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca is often plagued by driving wind and rain that reduce visibility.  Approximately 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through Puget Sound’s fragile ecosystem annually carrying about fifteen billion gallons of oil to Washington’s five refineries.  A March 2005 report by the Seattle Post Intelligencer identified about 650 near-miss “incidents,” including traffic violations, collisions, and groundings, that occurred in Puget Sound between 1985 to 2004.  Since 1964, vessels have spilled approximately 4.8 million gallons of oil in Washington waters.  Of this total, 184,000 gallons were spilled after the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Cantwell’s Oil Pollution Prevention and Response Act (OPPRA) is based in part on testimony from several Senate Commerce Committee hearings, including an August 2005 field hearing in Seattle chaired by Cantwell. 

To help prevent oil spills, Cantwell’s legislation would:

  • Improve the Safety of Older Oil Tankers and Encourage the Use of Safer Vessels – The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 required all tankers to have double hulls by 2015.  OPPRA would require the Coast Guard to increase inspections of single-hull tankers, as well as vessels with a poor safety record.  It would make the owner of the oil product a responsible party if the owner contracts with a single-hull tank vessel after 2010 and knows or should know that the vessel has a poor safety or operational record.

  • Direct the Coast Guard to Route Vessels Around Sensitive Areas – OPPRA would require the identification of ecologically or economically importance natural resources, including fisheries, sanctuaries, and important estuaries.  Routing and other navigational measures would then be used to reduce the risk of oil spills in these areas.

  • Pursue Stronger Enforcement of International Oil Pollution Agreements – OPPRA directs the Coast Guard to pursue tougher enforcement of the International Maritime Organization’s agreements to reduce the threat of illegal intentional oil discharges from vessels.

  • Address the Risk of Spills Resulting from Oil Transfer Operations – OPPRA would direct the Coast Guard to reduce the risk of oil spills from inadequately addressed activities, including the transfer of oil between vessels or between vessels and land-based facilities.

  • Address the Risk of Spills Resulting from Human Error – Human error is the most frequent cause of accidental spills. OPPRA would direct the Coast Guard to examine the most frequent sources of human error resulting in spills or “near miss” incidents.  The Coast Guard would then use its findings to take appropriate action to reduce the risk of oil spilled because of human error.

  • Establish a Grant Program to Reduce Smaller Spills – OPPRA would authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish an education and outreach grant program to help recreational boaters, fishermen, and others who operate smaller vessels reduce the risk of a spill. 

  • Require a Year-Round Neah Bay Rescue Tug – OPPRA would require a user-funded, year-round tug at Neah Bay near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The tug is the state’s first line of defense against oil spills, protecting the treacherous and environmentally fragile area around Cape Flattery and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

  • Further Reduce Traffic in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary – Currently, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is a voluntary “Area to Be Avoided,” meaning many ships, including freighters and oil tankers, are asked not to travel through the area.  More than 97 percent of these vessels comply.  OPPRA would expand the list of vessel types asked to avoid the Marine Sanctuary.

To improve oil spill response, and response to disabled ships, Cantwell’s legislation would:

  • Bolster the Nation’s Fire Fighting, Response, and Salvage Capability – The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 directed the Coast Guard to make sure adequate salvage, response, and firefighting vessels and equipment is stationed at strategic locations across the country, but the rule has yet to be implemented.  OPPRA would require the rule’s implementation within 18 months of enactment.

  • Enhance Oil Spill Preparedness in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Outer Coast – Currently the high volume port area in Washington state, in which additional response equipment must be stationed, does not include waters west of Port Angeles.  OPPRA would extend the high volume port area west to Cape Flattery, requiring oil spill response equipment along the entire Strait of Juan de Fuca.

  • Hold an Oil Spill Response Drill Off Washington’s Coast – To help prepare for an actual emergency, OPPRA would direct NOAA to lead an oil spill response drill in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.  NOAA has led oil spill response drills in Florida and California, and a similar exercise has long been planed for the Olympic coast.  OPPRA would authorize $700,000 for the exercise.

To improve oil spill research, planning, and coordination, Cantwell’s legislation would:

  • Advance Oil Spill Research and Detection – OPPRA would reinvigorate a federal research program on oil spill prevention, detection, and response, and would establish a grant program to develop cost-effective technologies that detect discharges of oil from vessels.

  • Establish a Stronger Role for Tribes – OPPRA would require the Coast Guard to improve oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response coordination with federally-recognized tribes.  Coastal tribes are particularly vulnerable to oil spills along Washington’s coast, and bore the brunt of past spills in the area.

  • Support the Oil Spill Advisory Council – The Washington state Oil Spill Advisory Council, created in response to the October 2004 Dalco Passage spill, is not recognized under federal law.  OPPRA would extend federal recognition to the council, similar to oil spill advisory councils in Alaska and New Jersey, and provide $1 million annually to support the Washington state Oil Spill Advisory Council’s work.   

Cantwell’s legislation would also improve Coast Guard coordination with states on oil spill issues, and direct the Coast Guard and Secretary of State to work with Canada to provide tug escorts to tankers traveling through the Haro Strait, Georgia Strait, or Strait of Juan de Fuca bound for Canadian ports.  It would also take steps to protect the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund from depletion, and direct the Department of Homeland Security to review the safety of America’s oil transport system.