Stricter spill rules eyed

Bill would make shippers responsible for own oil spills

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

A bill before the Legislature calls for cruise ship companies and other large vessel owners operating in Alaska to show they are able to clean up their own oil spills.

The Senate Resources Committee heard the measure for the first time Wednesday but did not pass it out of the committee.

The measure would apply to the Alaska Railroad and ships of more than 400 gross tons or roughly 170 feet long that do not carry fuel as primary cargo, said Larry Dietrick, director of the Alaska Division of Spill Prevention and Response. The state already requires tankers that transport oil as cargo to file spill prevention and clean-up plans.

Dietrick said the bill would affect an estimated 700 large vessels that operate in state waters and carry fuel to power their own operations. That includes large cruise ships, state-owned ferries, large at-sea fish processors, and large ships that haul minerals to market. Some of the ships can carry up to a million gallons of fuel, but they are not prepared for a spill, he said.

The measure would require shippers to file spill response plans showing they can contain at least 15 percent of their maximum capacity of oil onboard within 48 hours and that they have access to oil skimmers and boom at least three times the length of their vessels, Dietrick said.

"It also requires them to have a corresponding amount of storage to store the recovered oil. They have to have that in place ahead of time, ready to go," he said.

Under the bill, shippers could buy the equipment and muster a qualified team to clean spills, or they could hire a contractor approved by the state to respond to spills for them.

If the bill passed this year, shippers and the railroad would have to file spill response plans with the state probably in early 2003, or 180 days after the state issues regulations, Dietrick said. Large vessels with oil onboard would be banned from Alaska waters if they do not have a state-approved plan.

The bill corresponds to a measure passed last year that required shippers to assume financial responsibility for spills. Although that bill laid out standards for shippers in the event of a spill, it did not enforce them. The Legislature instead set up a task force to recommend ways to put the standards into effect. The task force included environmental regulators and representatives from the cruise ship industry, the seafood industry, petroleum transport companies and other affected parties.

The bill introduced this year was crafted by the task force and based on recommendations it unanimously approved, said Dietrick, who sat on the panel.

A letter from North West CruiseShip Association President John Hansen said the group, representing nine cruise lines, supports the measure.

"This is important legislation for Alaska," he wrote.

Juneau Democrat Sen. Kim Elton said the bill would ensure that shippers and the railroad operate in an environmentally sensitive way.

"They ought to have in place the means of quickly cleaning up the results of a spill," said Elton, a member of the Senate Resources Committee. "This is not something uncommon we've had ships run aground in the Aleutians (and) in other parts of the state ... we've had rail cars falling off our tracks and polluting the environment."

However, he is concerned about a provision in the bill exempting ships that pass through Alaska waters but do not call on ports here or engage in any commercial activity, such as fishing. The exemption is required under international law.

"It would be nice if we could regulate those vessels that are going through some of our rocky passes where we have very difficult weather situations," Elton said. "Those vessels ... are as much at risk of an oil spill as a vessel calling on Dutch Harbor. But we can't get to those vessels."

Kathy Dye can be reached at

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