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California and the West

Court Curbs State Rules on Tankers

Shipping: U.S. justices find national authority over maritime commerce takes precedence over state and local safety concerns.


WASHINGTON — Despite the fear of oil spills, coastal states generally may not set extra safety rules for huge oil tankers operating in their waters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 9-0 ruling upholds the principle of "national uniformity regarding maritime commerce," so that ships can move from port to port, both here and abroad, under one set of rules.

Congress and the Coast Guard are responsible for setting safety standards, the court said.

Its decision strips state officials in California and elsewhere of their authority to regulate tankers or their crews. For example, states cannot require ships to post an extra watchman on deck during bad weather or insist that crews be trained in English.

However, the ruling leaves intact local harbor rules, such as requirements for tug escorts in crowded or dangerous waters.

A lawyer for the International Assn. of Independent Tanker Owners applauded the Clinton administration and the high court for barring separate state regulations of shippers.

"This is an area where the federal government regulates extensively, and the federal power is supreme," said attorney C. Jonathan Benner, who represented the Oslo-based association of tanker owners. Its members operate more than 2,000 tankers, about 80% of the world's fleet.

But a Seattle environmentalist said the decision strips away the margin of safety and could lead to a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound or along the California coast.

"The Coast Guard is spread thin and has shown it is not up to the job," said Michael Rossotto, legal director for the Washington Environmental Council. "They are under intense pressure from the shipping industry to promote commerce."

He said two tankers entered Puget Sound last year with outdated charts, and another ran aground in the Columbia River.

"We are looking at a disaster waiting to happen," Rossotto said. "It is important now that we go to Congress and the administration and get stronger rules."

Monday's decision struck down four regulations imposed by Washington state in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The supertanker ran aground in Alaskan waters in 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil.

A year later, Congress adopted new standards for oil tankers. They include double hulls for the ships and alcohol and drug testing for crews.

Washington state lawmakers dread the possibility of an oil spill in Puget Sound. Ships enter the sound through the 65-mile-long Strait of Juan de Fuca, which is often shrouded in fog.

The state passed laws requiring tankers to put a third watchman on deck during periods of bad visibility and to have at least one deck officer who speaks English. Moreover, crews must be trained to deal with oil spills, the state said, and they must report all accidents, mishaps and injuries.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, said those standards regulate the on-board activities of an international tanker and therefore exceed the state's authority. He did not say the rules were unneeded, however.

"The issue is not adequate regulation but political responsibility," he said. "It is in large measure for Congress and the Coast Guard to confront whether their regulatory scheme is adequate."

California has not tried to impose similar regulations of tankers and their crews, said deputy state attorney Dennis Eagan. The state has, however, set rules for ships operating close to the coast, such as a minimum clearance standard near the offshore mooring at Huntington Beach, he said.

The shippers "have not challenged any of our regulations," Eagan said, and the court's opinion appears to allow such local regulation.

In a 1974 decision, the court said states can require tug escorts in their harbors and set safety standards based "on the peculiarities of local waters." Kennedy repeated those words in Monday's opinion.

The decision (United States vs. Locke, 98-1701) spares the Clinton administration an international headache.

Fourteen nations, including Canada, filed diplomatic protests with the State Department in 1997 over Washington state's shipping regulations. They noted that the United States had signed international treaties governing shipping. If it insisted on allowing separate regulations, these nations threatened retaliation against U.S. ships visiting foreign ports.

In response, Clinton administration lawyers urged the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down Washington's regulations. It refused to do so and instead sided with the state.

As a result, the administration and the international tankers group jointly appealed the case to the Supreme Court, leading to Monday's reversal.

The decision adds a new wrinkle to the court's handling of federal-state disputes.

In recent years, the court's conservative majority has struck down federal laws that it says interfere with basic state powers. Last year, a 5-4 ruling shielded Maine from paying overtime to its state workers, as required by federal law.

But on Monday the justices unanimously called "maritime commerce" a classic example of national power trumping state authority.

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