Governor Mitt Romney today signed legislation that creates protective measures to safeguard sensitive coastal areas from the harmful effects of oil spills.
“Last year’s oil spill in Buzzards Bay was a black menace on the sea. It was an insult to our environment, damaging habitats for endangered species, jeopardizing the livelihood of citizens employed in the local fisheries and interrupting our tourism and recreation industries,” Romney said.
“We must do everything in our power to reduce the likelihood of a future spill. This legislation is our best defense,” he added.
On April 27, 2003, a vessel operated by Bouchard Transportation Co. hit rocks off Gooseberry Point in Westport, releasing thousands of gallons of industrial fuel oil into Buzzards Bay. The spill impacted nearly 100 miles of shoreline, killing more than 400 birds and closing significant portions of Buzzards Bay’s 180,000 acres of shellfish beds for nearly a year.
In June 2003, an Oil Spill Commission was named to investigate possible changes to existing laws and regulations to increase the safety of commercial barges traveling in state waters. The legislation signed by the Governor implements the Commission’s recommendations and incorporates many suggestions made by the Governor’s Office in draft legislation submitted to the Commission.
The new law includes several preventive measures to ensure the safe passage of hazardous cargo through critical waterways. Barge operators must now navigate within designated channels, use local pilots to guide their vessels, seek tugboat escorts, and implement vessel traffic service systems to prevent collisions and groundings. The law also provides for training and response equipment for coastal communities to capture and prevent spills.
In addition, the law:
- Requires transporters to have a $1 billion dollar financial assurance program for large vessels.
- Reduces the financial assurance requirement for transporters that use double hulls, possess safety equipment and demonstrate good safety records.
- Authorizes state and local law enforcement officers to board and inspect vessels involved in maritime spill incidents and imposes a $5,000 penalty for commercial vessels that refuse access to an officer inspecting under these circumstances.
- Closes a loophole in the current 21E statute, the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention and Response Act, by authorizing the Department of Environmental Protection to take action to prevent oil spills.
“History will look back on the passage of this legislation as one of the most important events in the ongoing effort to save Buzzards Bay,” said Mark Rasmussen, Executive Director of The Coalition for Buzzards Bay. “The Coalition for Buzzards Bay is honored to have worked closely with Governor Romney and the legislative members of the Oil Spill Commission in crafting a bill that puts Massachusetts at the forefront - nationally - in protecting our waters from the risk of oil spills.”
In addition to the preventive measures, Romney said spillers would face tougher fines under the new law. For example, the penalty for a discharge of oil to state waters and tidal areas resulting in injury to public health increases from $1,000 to $25,000. This penalty was last increased in 1967. The law also creates graduated penalties that allow for stiffer civil and criminal penalties when parties’ actions are proven to be negligent or reckless and result in serious damage to natural resources.
“We are custodians to one of the nation’s most pristine coastal environments around Greater New Bedford,” said Senator Mark Montigny, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “It is our duty, met with passage of this legislation, to hold corporate polluters like Bouchard accountable with severe consequences and prevent them from abusing our quality of life ever again. This bill is truly a shining example of the great things that can happen when the Governor and the Legislature work together to create a better Commonwealth.”
The new law also establishes a trust fund to help communities respond to oil spills and imposes a two cent per barrel fee on petroleum products delivered to marine terminals to fund it. The trust fund is capped at $10 million, and the fee will no longer be collected after that point.
“As Trustee of the Commonwealth’s natural resources, I commend the Oil Spill Commission for moving quickly to address the environmental needs of our coastline,” said Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Herzfelder. “With these new protections in place, I look forward to never again seeing the kind of ecological destruction wrought by the Bouchard spill.”