Oil Pollution Act

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Oil Pollution Act


By: United States Congress

Date: 1990

Source: U.S. Congress. "Oil Pollution Act." 33 U.S.C.A. 40. II, sec. 2731-8. Washington, D.C.: 1990.

About the Author: The Congress of the United States was established by Article 1 of the United States Constitution of 1787. It is the legislative arm of the U.S. Federal Government.


On March 24, 1989, while trying to steer clear of icebergs, the fully loaded Exxon Valdez (a tanker carrying oil) sailing from the port of Valdez, Alaska, hit the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, at top speed. The ship spilled nearly 30 million gallons (114 million liters) of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska.

The oil spill caused colossal damage and death to marine life. Various studies stated that more than 300,000 common murres, more than 500,000 assorted seabirds, around four hundred to a thousand ducks, up to twenty-two killer whales, around six thousand otters, four hundred loons, more than three hundred harbor seals, and large numbers of other species were immediately killed as a result of the oil spill. Entire populations of fish such as salmon and herring were immediately wiped away from that area. Since then, many surviving species suffered a population crash and those surviving are not even close to recovering.

Strong winds that blew later expanded the disaster area and nearly 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) of shoreline, as far as 470 miles (760 kilometers) away from the point of disaster, were affected. Considerable stretches of habitat were endangered as a result of the oil spill. Shoreline communities suffered as a result of exposure to toxic vapors. As of 2006, several workers involved in the oil spill are still suffering from respiratory and brain-related problems.

This incident had extreme implications as it was not just a major shipping accident, but it occurred in an extremely fragile and ecologically sensitive area—the Alaskan waters. The Exxon Valdez Oil disaster of 1989 was instrumental in the passing of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. At the time there were no acts that actually ensured prevention of such disasters. The Oil Pollution Control Act of 1924 mentioned that it is against the law to dump or spill oil into any coastal area, or area that boats travel through. This Act, and its later versions, was too narrow in scope and not politically enforceable in the above case, as it did not deal with oil spills due to accidents.

Over the years, several amendments and new provisions were added in the Act to broaden its scope and to strengthen it. Eventually, this Act culminated into the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 and two years later into the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Exxon Valdez spill emphasized the need for a comprehensive Oil Pollution Control act and hence proved to be the foundation stone for The Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This Act, as of 2006, is reflected as Title 33 of the U.S. Code.

The primary source is a document that lists sections 2731 to 2738 of Title 33, Chapter 40, Subchapter II of the U.S. Code. The Prince William Sound amendment mentioned in the Act directs the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to establish a Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute through the Prince William Sound Science and Technology Institute in Cordova, Alaska. As per the guidelines mentioned in this section of the Act, the Institute is required to carry out specific procedures to deal with oil spills in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic marine environments and analyze the long-term effects of the spills on the wildlife in that area. Additionally, the Act directs the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to establish a North Pacific Marine Research Institute to be administered at the Alaska SeaLife Center by the North Pacific Research Board.



Section 2731. Oil Spill Recovery Institute

(a) Establishment of Institute

The Secretary of Commerce shall provide for the establishment ofa Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute (hereinafter in this section referred to as the "Institute") through the Prince William Sound Science and Technology Institute located in Cordova, Alaska.

(b) Functions

The Institute shall conduct research and carry out educationaland demonstration projects designed to—

  1. identify and develop the best available techniques, equipment, and materials for dealing with oil spills in the arctic and subarctic marine environment; and
  2. complement Federal and State damage assessment efforts and determine, document, assess, and understand the long-range effects of Arctic or Subarctic oil spills on the natural resources of Prince William Sound and its adjacent waters (as generally depicted on the map entitled "EXXON VALDEZ oil spill dated March 1990"), and the environment, the economy, and the lifestyle and well-being of the people who are dependent on them, except that the Institute shall not conduct studies or make recommendations on any matter which is not directly related to Arctic or Subarctic oil spills or the effects thereof….

Section 2734. Vessel traffic service system The Secretary of Transportation shall within one year afterAugust 18, 1990–

  1. acquire, install, and operate such additional equipment (which may consist of radar, closed circuit television, satellite tracking systems, or other shipboard dependent surveillance), train and locate such personnel, and issue such final regulations as are necessary to increase the range of the existing VTS system in the Port of Valdez, Alaska, sufficiently to track the locations and movements of tank vessels carrying oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline when such vessels are transiting Prince William Sound, Alaska, and to sound an audible alarm when such tankers depart from designated navigation routes; and
  2. submit to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the House of Representatives a report on the feasibility and desirability of instituting positive control of tank vessel movements in Prince William Sound by Coast Guard personnel using the Port of Valdez, Alaska, VTS system, as modified pursuant to paragraph (1).

Section 2735. Equipment and personnel requirements under tank vessel and facility response plans

(a) In general

In addition to the requirements for response plans for vesselsestablished by section 1321(j) of this title, a response plan for atanker loading cargo at a facility permitted under the Trans-AlaskaPipeline Authorization Act (43 U.S.C. 1651 et seq.), and a responseplan for such a facility, shall provide for—

  1. prepositioned oil spill containment and removal equipmentin communities and other strategic locations within the geographic boundaries of Prince William Sound, including escort vessels with skimming capability; barges to receive recovered oil; heavy duty sea boom, pumping, transferring, and lightering equipment; and other appropriate removal equipment for the protection of the environment, including fish hatcheries;
  2. the establishment of an oil spill removal organization at appropriate locations in Prince William Sound, consisting of trained personnel in sufficient numbers to immediately remove, to the maximum extent practicable, a worst case discharge or a discharge of 200,000 barrels of oil, whichever is greater;
  3. training in oil removal techniques for local residents and individuals engaged in the cultivation or production of fish or fish products in Prince William Sound;
  4. practice exercises not less than 2 times per year which test the capacity of the equipment and personnel required under this paragraph; and
  5. periodic testing and certification of equipment required under this paragraph, as required by the Secretary….

Section 2737. Limitation Notwithstanding any other law, tank vessels that have spilled more than 1,000,000 gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989, are prohibited from operating on the navigable waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Section 2738. North Pacific Marine Research Institute

(a) Institute established

The Secretary of Commerce shall establish a North Pacific Marine Research Institute (hereafter in this section referred to as the "Institute") to be administered at the Alaska SeaLife Center by the North Pacific Research Board.

(b) Functions

The Institute shall—

  1. conduct research and carry out education and demonstration projects on or relating to the North Pacific marine ecosystem with particular emphasis on marine mammal, sea bird, fish, and shellfish populations in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska including populations located in or near Kenai Fjords National Park and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; and
  2. lease, maintain, operate, and upgrade the necessary research equipment and related facilities necessary to conductsuch research at the Alaska SeaLife Center….

(c) Availability of research

The Institute shall publish and make available to any person on request the results of all research, educational, and demonstration projects conducted by the Institute. The Institute shall provide a copy of all research, educational, and demonstration projects conducted by the Institute to the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The Exxon Valdez spill is considered to be the largest oil spill in American shipping history. The incident acted as a driving force to amend and strengthen the provisions of the original Oil Pollution Act of 1924. As mentioned, these provisions are now incorporated in the Oil Pollution Control Act (OPA) 1990. OPA 1990 is a federal act that defines Valdez and the surrounding areas as an exclusive economic zone. It prohibits and thereby imposes severe liability on discharge of oil into navigable waters in this area. It also establishes liabilities for resulting injuries, and also for loss of natural resources.

The Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) was established by the U.S. Congress in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Act identifies the Prince William Sound Science and Technology Institute (known as the PWS Science Center) situated in Cordova, Alaska, as administrator and headquarters for OSRI. The purpose of the Institute was to understand the impact of oil spills on the environment, especially the marine ecosystem, to enhance the response ability of rescue teams, to gather information and bring general awareness, and to collaborate with other organizations and take benefit of their research and analytical knowledge.

Soon after the Institute was formed, the OSRI program was primarily funded by Congress. However, after 1996, a trust was formed for the program by the U.S. Treasury to streamline the funding procedure for the Institute. In 1995, OSRI focused on the risks and costs of oil spills as a part of its initial strategic plan for oil pollution research and development. Since 1998, OSRI has supported several projects and environmental research programs. The OSRI programs are in the fields of Applied Technology, Predictive Ecology, and Public Education and Outreach.

A section of OPA 1990 prohibits tankers that have spilled more than 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of oil in Prince William Sound to operate from the Port of Valdez. Subsequently, this has stopped the Exxon Valdez from operating in the Artic ever again. The Exxon Valdez now operates in the Mediterranean as the Exxon Mediterranean.

Furthermore, Section 2738 of this Act also established the North Pacific Marine Research Institute administered by The North Pacific Research Board at the Alaska SeaLife Center. The purpose of this Institute was to undertake research, education, and demonstration projects in the Alaskan land and marine ecosystem. As of 2006, marine research projects worth $1 million are in the pipeline, all of which are funded by The North Pacific Marine Research Institute. According to government sources, the Institute will continue to play a major role in marine research off Alaska contingent on availability of new funds.

Before the Exxon Valdez spill there were weak legislations in regard to oil spills. The incident provided the much-needed impetus to amend the existing act and ensure stronger legislation to prevent such disastrous oil spills. The OPA of 1990, as well as the institutes that were formed as a result of this act, have carried out various initiatives to protect the Alaskan region. However, experts are still of the opinion that not much has changed in the workings of shipping and oil industry as a consequence of this oil disaster and the Act of 1990. Reportedly, the oil industry continues to pollute the marine environment around the world. Even though Exxon was severely reprimanded for the oil spill and was required to pay more than $4 billion as interest, as of 2006 it is still appealing against the ruling. More than fifteen years after the disaster, Exxon claims that the region has recovered; however, various studies suggest the recovery is merely superficial.

Environmentalists do agree that there has been a rise in the awareness of the implications of oil spills among the media and general public as a result of the Prince William Sound Amendments to the OPA Act of 1990, and the subsequent establishment of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and the North Pacific Marine Research Institute.


Web sites

Miller, Pamela A. "Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Ten Years Later." Arctic Circle, March 1999, 〈http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/SEEJ/Alaska/miller2.htm〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).

Musgrave, Ruth Shippen, Judy Flynn-O'Brien, and Pam Lambert. "Oil Pollution Act of 1990." Federal Wildlife and Related Laws Handbook. 〈http://ipl.unm.edu/cwl/fedbook/oilpollu.html〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).

North Pacific Research Board. "North Pacific Marine Research Institute." North Pacific Research Board. 〈http://www.nprb.org/npmri/index.htm〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).

Oil Spill Recovery Institute. 〈http://www.pws-osri.org/about_osri/history.shtml〉 (accessed February 28, 2006).