Federal court overturns Massachusetts law setting navigation rules aimed at oil spills

A Massachusetts law establishing rules for vessels navigating in state waters has been struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court.

Massachusetts passed the 2004 Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act in response to the 2003 oil spill in Buzzards Bay. It occurred when a Bouchard Transportation Co. barge struck a rock ledge, spilling 98,000 gallons of oil.

The state law was challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice in U.S. District Court in Boston. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) supported the lawsuit. They argued that only the federal government has the authority under the U.S. Constitution to regulate the movement of vessels in these waters.

The Massachusetts law included requirements for vessels to be accompanied by a state-licensed pilot and tug escorts and for alcohol testing by vessel owners. It established mandatory route requirements and put restrictions on certain vessel designs. It also required all vessels transporting oil to provide a certificate of financial assurance to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro struck down all seven provisions of the law. According to his July 24 ruling, “The challenged provisions of the Oil Spill Prevention Act are preempted, invalid and unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.”

AWO President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Allegretti welcomed the decision. “We are extremely gratified that the U.S. District Court has upheld the U.S. Coast Guard’s regulatory authority regarding vessel operations in U.S. waters. This case is important for interstate commerce,” he said.

Mark Rasmussen, executive director of the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, a codefendant with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the lawsuit, said, “We had a really workable solution that was working. Now we are back to the same old régime that existed the day of the spill.”

Rasmussen said that the rules proposed by the U.S. Coast Guard do not go far enough to protect Buzzards Bay from future oil spills. “They are really only half measures,” he said. He said that he and the state had 60 days to consider an appeal.

The Coast Guard is still reviewing public comment on rules proposed in the Federal Register in October 2004, according to Lauren Downs, a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard. Among those proposed rules is a requirement that single-hull vessels transporting oil have a tug escort. The proposed measures also include recommended, but not mandatory, navigation routes for Buzzards Bay and New England waters.

John Snyder
By Professional Mariner Staff