Court Orders Tougher Oil Spill Cleanup Rules
A federal appeals court on Friday ordered the Department of the Interior to rewrite rules for cleaning up after oil spills, saying costs must include more than just the monetary value of animals killed.
The decision could affect damage payments made by oil companies involved in spills, such as the March 24 Exxon Valdez tanker accident that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Environmentalists hailed the unanimous decision by the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“We think it’s a major victory for the environment because it means that polluters will no longer get off the hook and they will have to pay for the whole cost of spills,” said Erik Olson of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the private organizations that joined with 10 states to bring the lawsuit.
Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said the action makes oil companies more responsible.
“If the Bush Administration appeals the ruling, it means President Bush’s pledge to hold Exxon’s feet to the fire is nothing more than a cynical exercise,” he said.
Department spokesman Al Levitt said the agency had just received the ruling and would have no immediate comment.
The court said the Interior Department had drawn the regulations too narrowly.
The 1986 laws in question require the department to design regulations to determine the monetary costs of oil spills. The department had created a computer model listing the “lost use” values for various types of wildlife.
For example, the cost of a fur seal was set at $15, based on the expected value of a seal pelt. The cost of geese ranged up to $35, based on their popularity among hunters.
But the appeals court said Congress had intended that the repayment plan be more broadly drawn to consider not simply the value of lost wildlife but the larger cost of restoring the damaged environment to its previous condition.
“Because in some--probably a majority--of cases, lost-use-value will be lower than the cost of restoration, Interior’s rule will result in damages awards too small to pay for the costs or restoration,” the ruling said.