Best Effort Response To Cleaning Up Oil Spills

By John D. Costello, President, MSRC

Marine Spill Response Corp. Projects 5-Year, $800 Million Program Two years ago, on a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground causing America's biggest oil spill.

While thousands worked to clean up the spill in Alaska, in Washington, a task force representing America's oil industry, set about studying the existing resources across the nation for responding to catastrophic oil spills.

As a result of task force recommendations, 20 oil companies began the process of creating the Petroleum Industry Response Organization (PIRO) to manage catastrophic spills. In August 1990, the oil companies created two new organizations: the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and the Marine Preservation Association (MPA). MSRC, which has succeeded PIRO, is an independent oil spill response organization.

MSRC will operate from five Regional Response Centers, each supported by several strategically placed equipment sites along the coast, and will become the nation's largest spill response and cleanup organization. MPA, an organization comprised of oil companies and the shippers and receivers of oil, will fund MSRC but have no control over operations.

MSRC is headquartered in Washington, D.C., with our five regional response centers located along the coastal United States in the New York/New Jersey area, south Florida in Miami/Port Everglades area, the Lake Charles/Hackberry, Louisiana area in the Gulf, Port Hueneme, California in the Southwest, and the Seattle, Washington area in the Northwest.

Each region will have four to six prestaging areas (22 in all) where equipment, supplies and sometimes vessels and personnel will be located.

Each site has been selected to enable a quicker response to a large spill in areas of greater oil movements, and hence risk, along the coast.

MSRC, under the direction of the Coast Guard, will provide a "besteffort" response to cleaning up spills of persistent (crude) oils that are beyond the capacity of local response organizations. Each of five regional centers is designed to provide this "best effort" response to spills. MSRC's response capabilities are being designed based on a spill roughly the size of the Alaska spill.

Operationally, the nearest equipment/ resources will be brought to the scene. In the event of an even larger spill, some of the resources of two or more regions may be combined.

MSRC's five-year costs for operations, capital equipment, and research and development are estimated at more than $800 million.

These costs are funded through MPA members' annual dues, which will be based on the number of barrels of oil transported in the previous year. In the event an MPA member becomes a spiller, MSRC will be available to aid the spiller, consistent with its agreement with the spiller and the direction of the Coast Guard. The spiller—not MPA or MSRC—will pay for the actual cleanup.

Although MSRC is a private organization that will work closely under contract with a spiller, it will also work closely with government efforts. MSRC will be available to execute the appropriate portions of the spiller's response plan. Under the Oil Pollution Act, spillers must respond under the direction of the Coast Guard during major oil spills in coastal areas. The presence of the Coast Guard at a spill site does not relieve spillers of their responsibilities for funding the clean up. The Coast Guard must, however, provide clear direction and coordination of cleanup operations when spills or potential spills pose a substantial threat to the public health and safety.

MSRC is not intended to replace existing oil spill cooperatives and independent response contractors.

In fact, MSRC will use co-ops and independent responders as subcontractors for major spills and will train and drill with them. These existing entities have done a good job handling smaller spills. MSRC will only act when this infrastructure does not have sufficient resources for larger spills.

Under federal law, the responder to an oil spill has limited immunity.

He is not liable for removal costs or damages unless he acts with gross negligence or willful misconduct.

This limited immunity does not involve cases of personal injury or wrongful death. Under some state laws, however, the responder is not provided this limited immunity.

MSRC is seeking state liability standards that are the same as the federal standard. This standard is appropriate because an oil spill responder must act decisively in a dynamic environment. Moreover, responders frequently must act with less than perfect information.

Another unique aspect of MSRC will be administration of a research and development program to improve the technology and knowledge used to respond to and clean up spills. This program will complement others in government, academia, and industry. MSRC plans to study such subjects as prevention of oil loss from damaged ships, onwater oil recovery and treatment, prevention and mitigation of shoreline impacts, fate and effects of spilled oil and petroleum products, mitigation of adverse effects on wildlife, and health and safety.

MSRC will also aim to develop standards of oil spill response equipment, techniques and training.

MSRC plans to be fully operational by February 1993—the date when the Oil Pollution Act requires owners and operators of vessels, terminals, pipelines and offshore platforms to submit comprehensive spill response plans. Much must be done in the intervening two years.

A detailed implementation plan has been developed for MSRC, with most of the plan still in the process of being implemented. Equipment and vessels are being procured. Regional Response Centers must be surveyed and acquired. Land and buildings are being purchased or leased. Personnel—including hundreds of subcontractors—must be hired, trained and integrated into MSRC operations. Insurance must be arranged, and the research and readiness programs must be launched.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires that shippers and others responsible for oil transported on offshore and tidal waters show they can, to the maximum extent practicable, remove a "worst case" spill they might cause. This capability must reside in the private sector, and many companies may want to rely on MSRC to meet important federal response requirements, rather than obtain other response and cleanup capabilities.

Other stories from April 1991 issue

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