In a case stemming from a devastating oil spill, a federal appeals court in Boston sided with environmentalists and ordered a new hearing on a Massachusetts law aimed at preventing such disasters.
The Legislature passed the Oil Spill Prevention Act in 2004 after a barge struck a rocky ledge in a bay off the southeastern Massachusetts Coast and spilled 98,000 gallons (370,959 liters) of oil. The spill polluted more than 90 miles (145 kilometers) of shoreline and closed nearly 100,000 acres (40,469 hectares)of shellfish beds.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro threw out main provisions of the law, saying it was pre-empted by federal law. But last Thursday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tauro had acted prematurely and ordered the case sent back to the lower court to hear evidence.
The law created rules and regulations governing vessels transporting oil in Massachusetts waters, including requiring tugboat escorts for vessels traveling in certain waters and enhancing the staffing requirements for tank barges and tow vessels.
The federal government, along with barge operators, challenged the law, arguing federal law already mandated regulations for oil tankers.
The appeals court said Tauro acted too quickly when he ruled in favor of the federal government without hearing evidence. The court also said the judge did not use the analysis required by the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve federal-state conflicts in such cases.
It was not clear whether the state law could be enforced while the lower court judge reconsidered the case.
Both sides claimed Thursday’s ruling as a partial win.
“We think this is a very important victory for preserving states’ rights to protect their waters from environmental threats,” said Sue Reid, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a news release that she was heartened by the ruling but acknowledged the matter was unresolved.
The ruling is largely procedural, said Jonathan Benner, an attorney representing an industry coalition that includes American Waterways Operators and Intertanko, an international association of independent tanker owners who oppose the state regulations on constitutional grounds.
Supporters of the law said the Coast Guard had failed to adopt adequate safeguards to protect state waterways. Chief Warrant Officer Scott Carr, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Boston office, said the Coast Guard was reviewing the ruling.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said its attorneys had not reviewed the ruling and had no comment.
Franklin Robert Hill received five months in prison after pleading guilty in the accident in April 2003. He was the mate on the “Evening Tide,” a tugboat that was pulling a barge into the Cape Cod Canal when it went off course onto rocky shoals. The tugboat and barge hit a rock outcropping, ripping a 12-foot (3.66-meter) hole in the bottom of the barge and rupturing one of its 10 oil tanks.
Prosecutors said Hill missed a warning from a nearby tugboat that the barge was headed for rocks because he left behind his hand-held radio.
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