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Conferees Break Deadlock on Oil Spill Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Senate and House negotiators broke a months-old deadlock Thursday and cleared the way for final passage this summer of legislation to help prevent and clean up oil spills as well as impose higher liability payments on tanker owners.

House conferees yielded to the Senate and dropped a House-approved provision that would have enforced two international treaties that set liability limits for oil spills by ocean tankers and establish a global fund to compensate for damages, up to a specified ceiling.

The Senate delegation unanimously opposed the treaties on grounds that the liability limits were too low and that the international agreements--never ratified by the Senate--would have the effect of replacing stiffer federal and state laws on oil spills.

Two other major issues remain unresolved: establishing timetables for requiring double hulls on tankers and barges and setting the upper limits of liability for ship and cargo owners. A conference was scheduled for July 12--after the congressional recess for the Fourth of July holiday--in hopes of reaching agreement on those items.

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“I’m confident we can resolve the other issues and pass a bill this year,” said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a participant in the conference.

The Bush Administration favored the House approach on grounds that it would give better protection against oil spills originating outside the three-mile U.S. territorial limit and would not subject tankers to state laws providing unlimited liability.

Senate Democratic leader George J. Mitchell of Maine led the fight against the House provision, which would have implemented the treaties even though the Senate has not ratified them.

“Only the tiniest fraction of vessels,” he said, would be covered by the treaties that would not be covered by federal or state law. “The purpose of the protocols (treaties) is to preempt federal and state law.” The House, however, voted against federal preemption of state laws concerning oil spills.

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In addition, Mitchell argued, the House provision would have shifted responsibility for oil spills from those responsible for them to the American taxpayers, who would contribute to the international fund. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the international agreements--concluded long before the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska--were “outdated” and should be renegotiated before the United States accepts them.

Under the international agreements, which have been ratified by 41 countries, those hurt by an oil spill may first seek compensation from insurers for the responsible party, with a ceiling of $75 million.

The applicants may then seek up to $260 million from an international fund supported by the signatory nations.

Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), chairman of the House negotiators, said he was relieved to have the issue resolved even though his compromise proposal was not accepted.

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The strong Senate stand and the unwillingness of the House negotiators to change their position had led some lawmakers to believe that the dispute might scuttle the legislation during this session of Congress.


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