June 19, 2019

Amended oil tanker rules draw fire > Coast Guard says change could create confusion

AUGUSTA — Updated state rules that govern the maritime transportation and storage of oil in Maine are redundant and will create confusion in the shipping industry, the U.S. Coast Guard and port and oil company officials said Wednesday.

Representatives of the Department of Environmental Protection, which developed the amended rules, and environmental groups said the regulations will save Maine’s coast from a disaster like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In addition, if such a spill were to occur in Maine, having state rules regulating oil transportation and storage would ensure the state has grounds on which to seek legal remedies for the damages, David Sait, director of response services for the DEP, told members of the Board of Environmental Protection. The board held a public hearing on the proposed rules Wednesday.

“It is important for the state to have the ability to take action against a vessel independently and not be a passive player,” Sait said, referring to the Alaska oil spill 10 years ago. Alaska had to rely on the federal government to sue Exxon to get financial compensation for the damage done to state waters and shoreline by the massive spill.

Oil is routinely transported up and down the Maine coast, with many ships coming into Penobscot Bay.

The regulations, which are the result of more than five years of study and drafting, are a combination of existing standards, amended standards, new state regulations and the adoption of some federal regulations, Sait told the board. Critics voiced their opposition to the amendments as well as the existence of any state rules at all regarding vessels that haul oil.

Maine first adopted rules governing the transportation and storage of oil in 1971. Among other things, the amendments stipulate that all vessels coming into Maine ports have at least one crew member who speaks English on the ship’s bridge, and that new oil storage tanks have double bottoms to prevent leaks. The rules were last amended in 1978 and it is high time for some updates, Sait said.

Evelyn Jephson, a former member of the BEP agreed. “These regulations worked and I don’t think any terminal or pipeline has suffered,” said Jephson, who served on the board from 1967 until 1987.

She said industry officials were simply trying once again to weaken the rules.

Industry and Coast Guard officials, however, told the board that any state rules relating to oil-transport vessels are unneccessary and will cause confusion among the crews of ships coming into the state’s harbors. These groups were not opposed to state regulation of oil storage on land.

“More regulations simply do not translate into greater safety,” said Capt. John Astley of the Coast Guard. If each state develops its own rules, it will cause confusion among ship crews who will be left to wonder if they should obey federal, international or state rules, said Astley, who works for the Coast Guard Division 1 which runs from central Massachusetts to Canada.

The only other state to have adopted its own rules governing oil transporting vessels is Washington and those rules are currently being challenged in federal court by the oil tanker industry.

He said the Coast Guard is doing a good job of patroling Maine’s waters and that the regulation of oil tankers should be left to them.

Tom Valleau, the former director of the port of Portland, told the board that huge vessels such as the QE2 and Trident submarines have successfully come into Portland harbor without stringent regulations on their operations.

“If these regulations are approved, it will not make Portland a safer harbor,” he said. “Portland will be a less safe harbor.”

Another opponent of the regulations, David Look, who chaired a statewide oil spill advisory committee, said more time was needed to review the regulations.

This prompted board member Jean Wilkinson to question what new information would be gained with more study since the regulations had been under review for five years. She said the board frequently hears more review of an item is needed when one side is unhappy with the outcome of a decision.

Another board member, John Marsh, asked Look if there was anything in the new regualtions that would have prevented the 1996 accident in which the oil tanker Julie N. struck a bridge abutment in Portland, spilling more than 170,000 gallons of oil into the harbor.

“Nothing,” Look replied. “That was human error.”

The board will accept written comments on the proposed rules until July 9. DEP staff will then rework the rules and the board will vote on them later in the year.

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