The purpose of this hearing is to evaluate operational incidents associated with oil spills. The Subcommittee will examine non-tank vessel fuel tank design, the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System (VTS), and the U.S. vessel pilot system.
Frank R. LautenbergSenatorLet me welcome everyone to today’s hearing as we work to better protect our shores, our wildlife, our families—and our economy—from the deadly and toxic effects of oil spills.This week is a fitting time for this hearing.Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a final appeal by Exxon over its catastrophic oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.Exxon made more than $40 billion last year.Yet 19 years after the spill, Exxon is still fighting a damages award which would cost them about three weeks worth of profits.While they continue to fight, the environment continues to suffer. The Alaska coastline—as well as the local economy—is still reeling from the oil that remains.In the aftermath of the Valdez disaster, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990—one of the most powerful oil spill laws on the books.As a Senator from a coastal state, I was proud to be an original co-sponsor of that law, which required mandatory response plans, double-hulling of tanker ships, and provided a fair way to ensure spills were cleaned up.But in 2004, a single-hull oil tanker spilled more than 260,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.That spill devastated our environment and shut down some of the busiest ports in the country.So two years ago, I worked with this Committee to update the Oil Pollution Act by nearly tripling the liability limits which polluters must pay for spills from single-hull tankers and doubling liability limits for non-tank vessels.But while the number of oil spills from tankers has declined, spills continue to occur from fuel tanks of cargo and fishing vessels.Late last year, San Francisco Bay was deluged with 53,000 gallons of fuel oil from a ship that was not an oil tanker.These and other recent spills make it clear we must do more to protect our shores.Fuel tanks on container ships can hold up to four million gallons of oil, which is more than some oil tankers carry.The international community has already put in place better ship design requirements, and it’s time for the United States to catch up.We need to use the Coast Guard’s vessel tracking services to help prevent collisions and improve our response to oil spills.We need to look at how the Coast Guard licenses mariners, including what medical standards are used to determine their fitness to operate these vessels.And we need to increase federal oil spill liability limits for ships that we know have higher risks of causing devastating spills.Today, I am introducing legislation to address these needs—because the environment and our economy depend on our work to prevent another major catastrophe.I look forward to working with my colleagues on this and other legislation to better protect our shores.
Ted StevensSenatorI have seen firsthand the devastation that can be caused by oil spills. Just one significant spill in a sensitive area of our coastline can be extremely destructive to the ocean, environment and those who depend on its resources.In 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound. The fishermen and communities devastated by this spill have yet to fully recover from its impacts. It was just last week, nearly 18 years after the spill, that the Supreme Court finally heard oral arguments on whether those injured would be able to recover punitive damages.The legal process has been so drawn out that nearly 8,000 of the original 30,000 plaintiffs have since passed away.After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed The Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This act has done much to reduce the risk of oil spills and improve our response efforts. But I remain concerned about the adequacy of our prevention resources. We need to make sure the Coast Guard has the tools it needs to help vessels avoid accidents that may cause an oil spill.Initiatives like the vessel tracking system used in areas of Alaska need to be expanded so we can track all the cargo ships and oil tankers sailing in our waters. As captain Ed Page will testify, these tracking systems show, in real time, the location of possible response vessels and give us the greatest chance to prevent or contain an oil spill and protect our valuable coastlines.I thank Captain Ed Page for making the long journey from Alaska to be here today and I look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses.
Witness Panel 1
Admiral Thad W. AllenCommandantUnited States Coast Guard
Witness Panel 2
Captain Ed Page U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)PresidentMarine Exchange of Alaska
Mr. Paul KirchnerExecutive Director and General CounselAmerican Pilots Association
Dr. Kirsi TikkaVice President, Global Technology and Business DevelopmentAmerican Bureau of Shipping