The highest fine that can be levied against the firm determined to be responsible for the rupture of an oil tanker off the California coast is $250,000, officials said Friday.
Cmdr. Scott Porter, a Coast Guard spokesman in Long Beach, said the Environmental Protection Agency would impose the fine only if the Coast Guard's maximum penalty--$5,000--is considered inadequate, "taking into account the magnitude of the spill."
"I think we have to assume that ($5,000) isn't much for a major company. . . . It's not going to look like much of anything compared to the cost of the cleanup."
In any spill, Porter said, the EPA has wide authority to determine if aggravating circumstances or willful misconduct, such as drunkenness, were involved. He said the EPA could levy fines up to $250,000 "depending on the gravity of the incident."
In the case of the American Trader, the crippled tanker moored off the coast of Huntington Beach that spewed 300,000 gallons of crude into the ocean, Porter said, fines will probably be levied against the tanker's owner, American Trading Transportation Co., and not British Petroleum, which owned the oil.
The Coast Guard can suspend or revoke the license of the captain and the mooring master, who helped guide the tanker into shallow water where its hull was ruptured, if negligence is found, officials said.
Lt. Vincent Campos, a Guard spokesman, said tanker Capt. A. R. (Robert) La Ware, Mooring Master John E. Keon and the ship's first mate had tested negative for alcohol but that drug tests were pending.
Outside of the Coast Guard's rather limited jurisdiction, the degree of liability shared by British Petroleum and American Trading Transportation Co. will be determined under U.S. maritime law.
Responsibility for the crew is "where the fight arises," said Sidney K. Kanazawa, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in maritime law.
In the case of the American Trader, a British Petroleum spokesman said the ship was chartered specifically to deliver crude and that the crew was hired and the ship maintained by American Trading Transportation.
But Kanazawa said it was "the extent of involvement that is important. There are all kinds of agreements."