Judge Nullifies State Oil Spill Law

Thursday, July 27, 2006
A federal judge has nullified Massachusetts’ landmark Oil Spill Prevention Act, striking down regulations on oil shipping in Buzzards Bay that included mandatory tug escorts and navigational routes as well as minimum staffing. U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro ruled the state violated federal law because those areas fall under Coast Guard jurisdiction. He said the state regulations ''are pre-empted, invalid and unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.'' The Massachusetts Legislature passed the Oil Spill Act in 2004, amid warnings from the oil industry that it was stepping on federal jurisdiction. Lawmakers moved quickly to respond to a 98,000-gallon oil spill in Buzzards Bay on April 27, 2003, when a Bouchard Transportation Co. barge drifted off course and struck an underwater ledge. The federal Justice Department filed suit after the law was signed by Gov. Mitt Romney, saying such regulatory matters belonged to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is moving to adopt tug escort requirements for the Northeast, including Buzzards Bay. But critics say the Coast Guard is moving too slowly, and its proposed regulations are less stringent than the state's. Tauro granted the request of the Justice Department and the oil shipping industry to invalidate major portions of the state law, based on written arguments. In a ruling released on July 25, Tauro said the state ''is permanently enjoined from enforcing the challenged statutes.'' Tauro noted that he was not deciding the merits of the regulations, but the state's authority to enforce them over the federal government. He also struck down a provision requiring the use of local pilots in oil shipping in Buzzards Bay. Attorney General Tom Reilly was considering an appeal. Legislators and environmentalists who wrote the state law in response to the Bouchard oil spill were outraged by the court decision. The Bouchard spill polluted 93 miles of coastline, caused the deaths of at least 450 federally protected birds, and temporarily closed 180,000 acres of shellfish beds. Bouchard paid a $10m fine for violating the Clean Water Act. Franklin Robert Hill, 54, of Jacksonville, Fla., the first mate of the tugboat that caused the oil spill, was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to the same charge last year. (Source: Cape Cod Times)

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