US Oil Pollution Act 1990 (OPA 90)

An Overview on OPA 90

The US government brought into existence its own rules on double hull tankers under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90). OPA-90 came into existence after the infamous oil spill by the Exxon Valdez, which spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska in  March 1989. This spill caused extensive damage along the Alaskan coastline and is the largest oil spill from vessel in the US waters till date. OPA-90 required new tankers and tank barges that operate in the US waters to have double hulls. All existing tankers with a single hull are to be phased out by 2015. The double hull requirement is not mandatory for foreign ships engaged in an innocent passage in the US waters.

Other requirements for tankers following the OPA-90 include: training in bridge resource management, complying with minimum rest requirements for watch-keeping personnel, minimum under keel clearance requirements and enhanced ship surveys.

Following the enforcement of the OPA-90, the volume of oil spilled from tankers fell from an average of 70,000 barrels per year to 4,000 barrels per year. The implementation of the OPA-90 is to be carried out by the US coast guard. According to the OPA-90, the ship’s owner is required to initiate a response and provide compensation. The act establishes a total limit of $3,000 per gross tons. However, this limit may be removed if the oil pollution incident was caused by gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Shipowners are required to carry documentation that verifies their ability to pay the compensation for the response and damages and penalties caused by an oil pollution incident. Shipowners and operators of tankers trading in the US waters are required to submit a Vessel Response Plan (VRP) to the US Coast Guard for review and approval.

The VRP requires owners and operators to identify a qualified individual, a spill management team and contracted response resources that can carry out salvage, lightening operations and have appropriate fire-fighting capabilities. The VRP should feature the capabilities of personnel to respond to an oil spill and should include equipment required to combat oil spills. To ensure effective preparedness, the VRP spill response should include annual training and drills.

OPA Evolution

There were many lessons learned the aftermath of the Valdez oil spill. Two of the most obvious were:

  • The United States lacked adequate resources, particularly Federal funds, to respond to spills, and
  • The scope of damages to be compensated under federal law to those impacted by a spill was fairly narrow.

Although the environmental damage and massive cleanup efforts were the most visible effects of this casualty, one of the most important outcomes was the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which addressed both these deficiencies.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2701-2761) amended the Clean Water Act and addressed the wide range of problems associated with preventing, responding to, and paying for oil pollution incidents in navigable waters of the United States. It created a comprehensive prevention, response, liability, and compensation regime to deal with vessel and facility-caused oil pollution to U.S. navigable waters. OPA greatly increased federal oversight of maritime oil transportation, while providing greater environmental safeguards by:

  • Setting new requirements for vessel construction and crew licensing and manning,
  • Mandating contingency planning,
  • Enhancing federal response capability,
  • Broadening enforcement authority,
  • Increasing penalties,
  • Creating new research and development programs,
  • Increasing potential liabilities, and
  • Significantly broadening financial responsibility requirements.

OPA Key ContentsTitle I. Oil Pollution Liability and CompensationTitle II. Conforming AmendmentsTitle III. International Oil Pollution Prevention and RemovalTitle IV. Prevention and Removal

  • Subtitle A – Prevention
  • Subtitle B – Removal
  • Subtitle C – Penalties and Miscellaneous

Title V. Prince William Sound ProvisionsTitle VI. MiscellaneousTitle VII. Oil Pollution Research and Development ProgramTitle VIII. Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

  • Subtitle A – Improvements to Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
  • Subtitle B – Penalties
  • Subtitle C – Provisions Applicable to Alaska Natives

Title IX. Amendments to Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, Etc.

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