Oil spill bill passes Senate commitee

May 16, 2008 1:09:45 PM PDT
One of a few federal bills intended to buoy the U.S. Coast Guard's emergency management authority and avert catastrophic oil spills like the one in San Francisco Bay in November passed a Congressional committee Thursday.

The Oil Spill Prevention Act, a bill cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., passed the Senate's Commerce Committee and will now be considered by the full Senate, Boxer's office reported.

The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would require protective double hulls around the fuel tanks of newly built non-tanker ships with a capacity of at least 600 cubic meters of fuel.

Double-hull legislation similar to the Lautenberg-Boxer bill has also been introduced by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

That legislation, which would additionally require existing ships to be retrofitted with double hulls, is still pending in the Senate Commerce Committee, according to Feinstein's office.

Federal law already requires oil tankers to have double-hull protection, though newer and larger cargo ships -- like the 900-foot container ship Cosco Busan that struck the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, spilling more than 53,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the bay -- have been exempted from those regulations.

Oil from the Nov. 7 spill washed ashore and temporarily closed several Bay Area beaches, killed thousands of birds, and severely damaged the area's fishing industry.

Environmental groups predicted it could be many more months before the long-term ecological impact of the spill is known.

The Oil Spill Prevention Act also clarifies, as does Feinstein's bill, the Coast Guard's authority over vessel movements in order to prevent maritime emergencies such as oil spills, and calls for an analysis of possible improvements to vessel traffic service systems.

A third bill boosting funding for the Coast Guard, which also includes provisions on double hulls and Coast Guard authority, passed the U.S. House of Representatives in April.

The Oil Spill Prevention Act would additionally establish a review board to advise the Coast Guard on medical standards for merchant mariners.

Cosco Busan pilot John Cota, 60, of Petaluma, is currently facing federal charges in connection with the San Francisco Bay spill, including felony charges of making false statements on medical forms and misdemeanor charges of negligently discharging oil into the bay and killing migratory birds.

Prosecutors allege Cota did not properly disclose information to the Coast Guard about the medications he was taking, the possible side effects, and the medical conditions they were intended to treat.

Cota has denied all the charges and is scheduled to return to court July 18.


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