Environmental Laws and Oil Spills

The Exxon Valdez has become a household name, and it's no surprise that the event triggered a wave of change in the world of environmental laws and oil spills. It was an environmental disaster of an unprecedented level, at least in the United States, and it held that title until the oil spill on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, located in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2010. That rig was being operated for BP, or British Petroleum, and it surpassed the Exxon Valdez in scope. However, since the Valdez came first, it also meant that those involved with the Deepwater situation faced a very different set of laws.

An Act Specifically for Oil Pollution

The Exxon Valdez disaster occurred in 1989, and the U.S. Congress put the The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 through just a year after that; it is often called the OPA. This act was designed to do three separate but related things. First and foremost, it created a system of penalties for those involved, which is a way to extract financial punishment and also to hopefully deter companies from allowing accidents to happen. On top of that, the act was designed to make sure that money was available when clean-up efforts were needed.

The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund

One offshoot of this was that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund was actually given money to be held aside to help with an environmental disaster. The fund itself had actually existed for four years -— since 1986 —- but it was empty. The fund still exists today, with one of the latest changes coming in 2005, when it was authorized to hold $2.7 billion. A single event can only draw one billion dollars from the fund, however.

Planning and Preparing

The act also held companies responsible for their actions and outlined what had to be done before drilling could start. Rather than just moving forward as quickly as possible, companies now need to go over scenarios in which a leak or spill could take place. They need to make plans to counteract the problems. This way, if a spill does happen, they can simply put the plan into action, already knowing exactly what to do, rather than spending time analyzing things only after the fact. This also allows for precautionary measures to be taken.

More Responsibility, Greater Penalties

Since the Exxon Valdez was such a serious incident, the act firmly put the responsibility for preventing these events on the companies involved in drilling or transporting oil. Regulations were laid down, such as the stipulation that double hulls be used on the ships transporting oil, helping to protect against a spill even in the case of an accident. The amount that the company is responsible for was extended, meaning that responsible parties now have to pay for local and state efforts to clean up the spill, along with federal efforts, covering all of the costs. Furthermore, penalties were raised, making it far more costly to be involved in an oil spill. This, as mentioned above, is both a penalty and a deterrent.

State Laws Remain

As important as these federal laws are, they do not override any laws that states already had in place. These can still be used as is seen fit. The federal regulations are simply there to make sure that there is a basis of responsibility, both when it comes to money and when looking at preventative actions. These laws ensure that there is no gray area as to what must be done when a company is involved, whether through negligence or otherwise, in an oil spill.

Who Can Be a Plaintiff?

Of course, a disaster like this may reach hundreds and even thousands of people. Plaintiffs could be almost anyone who is negatively impacted, from a commercial fisherman who cannot bring in the catch he or she anticipated, to a resort owner who saw reduced tourism or reduced property values, to those who were physically injured during the crash, explosion, or any other part of the spill.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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