Op-Ed (gCaptain) This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) — one of the most successful disaster response and environmental protection laws in U.S. history. Enacted with unanimous support in Congress and incorporating lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, OPA-90 has dramatically reduced the number of oil spills and related hazardous materials releases across the United States. OPA-90 ended the failed history when polluters were entrusted to protect the public interest. OPA-90 requires the Federal government (typically the Coast Guard or EPA) to take charge of disaster-related decision-making while keeping the host State closely informed and involved in safeguarding the local natural environment.
An important test case of OPA-90 is currently playing out just off the coast of St. Simons, Georgia where the M/V Golden Ray – the largest cargo shipwreck in U.S. coastal waters since the Exxon Valdez – ran aground on September 8, 2019. Five months after the wreck of the 656’ (longer than two football fields) Golden Ray car carrier, 4,200 cars, each containing various pollutants, remain trapped in the cargo hold, as the foreign ship owner and insurers work to influence removal and environmental protection decision-making process from the Federal government and the State of Georgia. Contrary to OPA-90, the Coast Guard is in the process of delegating, without legal justification, its authority to those responsible for the disaster.
Consultants working for the responsible parties have convinced the Coast Guard to accept a controversial, high risk, “large section” wreck removal proposal that requires the construction of a 31+ acre environmental perimeter barrier in St. Simons Sound that interferes with the main navigation channel to the Port of Brunswick. This enormous and unprecedented perimeter barrier proposal has triggered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to open a public comment process and federal environmental review and assessment, introducing more delay into the pollution removal timeline. Several months ago, the shipowner rejected a plan for a 4.6-acre protective perimeter that avoided the navigation channel and which could be implemented in conjunction with a more surgical salvage process that would remove the pollution and cars first, before disassembling the wreck. The smaller footprint alternative has apparently never been shared with the ACOE or other stakeholders.
The rationale for the huge protective perimeter project is that it is necessary to facilitate the use of the controversial “large section” removal process that involves cutting and transporting to the Gulf of Mexico via barges the eight sections of a steel hull, each weighing more than 4,000 tons. This proposed wreck removal process has only been attempted a few on car carrier ships resulting both times in the wreck collapsing and releasing pollution into the marine environment. The ACOE recently announced that the wreck cleanup project may require until the end of 2021 to complete.
This is OPA 90’s biggest test ever. The question is, will the United States Coast Guard allow OPA-90 to be manipulated by responsible parties? Will they rewind the clock to the days before Exxon Valdez when polluters managed their own environmental disaster recovery efforts?