Massachusetts setting up escort program for double-hull vessels on Buzzards Bay

Under a new Massachusetts law, all double-hull vessels transporting petroleum products across Buzzards Bay will have tug escorts and state pilots provided to them free of charge.

Oil covered rocks along Buzzards Bay after a barge towed by a tug struck a ledge in April 2003. About 98,000 gallons of oil were spilled in the accident. (Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Since the U.S. Coast Guard already requires single-hull oil barges to have an escort on Buzzards Bay, this new law should mean that all tank vessels crossing Buzzards Bay will have tug escorts.

The approximate cost of the state program will be $1.7 million per year, or about $6,000 per vessel. The costs will be funded by an increase in the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Fee from its current rate of 2 cents per barrel to 5 cents per barrel. Based on fiscal year 2006 landings of about 96 million barrels, the fees would generate approximately $4.8 million, enough to cover the program and add to current training and response programs.

Both the new state law and the Coast Guard escort regulations were adopted in response to the April 2003 oil spill that discharged approximately 98,000 gallons of fuel oil into the bay and polluted over 100 miles of shoreline.

Following the spill, the state passed a law requiring state licensed pilots and escort tugs for all vessels transporting 6,000 or more barrels of oil through the bay.

In July 2006, the federal government successfully challenged the state law in court, arguing that it violated Coast Guard jurisdiction over marine transportation. Massachusetts appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on three issues — financial assurance, escort tugs and manning. In 2007, the federal government dropped its challenge to the financial assurance provision and the Coast Guard issued rules requiring escort tugs and federally licensed pilots for single-hull vessels only, with the cost to be borne by the operators.

In continuing litigation, Massachusetts maintains that it has the ability to require pilots and escort tugs for double-hulled vessels.

While the case continues to work its way through the courts, the state was determined to find a legal way to ensure that both single and double-hull tank vessels crossing the bay would have escorts. The solution was to come up with a voluntary program to cover double-hull vessels.

Although requesting escort tugs and pilots would be voluntary on the part of the industry, the new law requires the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to dispatch escort tugs and state pilots, according to Richard Packard, Oil Spill Preparedness program manager with DEP. He said his agency is working on setting up a dispatch and tracking system in the bay and is negotiating contracts with towing companies and state pilots for their services.

From the date of the bill’s passage in August 2008, DEP will have until March 2009 to get those contracts in place. Packard said that the pilot groups have been responsive to the program.

—John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff