Spurred by the rash of recent oil spills, Senate Commerce Committee members called yesterday for stricter safety standards on foreign tankers entering U.S. ports.
The Coast Guard, which has legal authority to require preventive safety measures, has been unduly influenced by the maritime industry, committee members charged.
However, Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, who oversees the Coast Guard, told the crowded hearing that "the day of the gunboat is over." Safety standards should be drawn by international treaty, not by unilateral U.S. law, he said.
Since the Liberian-registered tanker Argo Merchant spilled 7.6 million gallons of oil off the Massachusetts coast last month, 11 oil tanker mishaps have occured near U.S. coasts.
"This country has just witnessed the worst rash of tanker accidents ever," said Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, (D-Wash.), the committee chairman. "These ships seem to be going down everywhere."
Magnuson predicted that with increasing oil imports - 96 per cent of them shipped on foreign vessels having safety standards less rigorous than America's - "the worst is yet to come." The Coast Guard's regulations and international maritime safety treaties "have been made at the insistence of the ship operators rather than for the American public," he said.
Commerce Committee and Transportation Department officials are examining a set of complex regulations including strict vessel design and construction standards, requirements for double-bottomed hulls, segregated ballasts, sophiscated collision-avoidance systems, liability and compensations standards.
Although the Coast Guard has been reluctant to set unilateral standards for oil tankers, it has imposed such standards for tankers carrying liquefied natural gas.
The strictness of any future oil tanker standards will depend to a great extent on the policies of the incoming Carter administration.
However, Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.), who has prepared tanker safety legislation in the wake of the Argo Merchant disaster, told the committee yesterday that "the responsibility lies with Congress" rather than with the Coast Guard.
"No line agency can be expected to make so major a step in international, as well as domestic, regulatory policy in the face of State Department opposition and legislative inertia," he said.
While the State Department has favored toughening safety standards through international treaty, Ambassador T. Vincent Learson, the U.S. representative at the Law of the Sea Conference, yesterday advocated "strict requirements for entry and use of U.S. ports."
In apparent disagreement with Coleman, Learson said in a prepared statement, "There is no legal impediment to U.S. imposition of its domestic regulations on all vessels in our posts."
However, he added, "We should ensure that domestic regulations, while perhaps more stringent than international ones, are not in face incompatible, thus making compliance impossible."
Incompatibility is a likely consequence of unilateral action, according to Coleman, who said other countries outlaw double-hulls and are developing competing navigational systems.
However, Russell E. Train, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said aggressive unilateral action is now needed because international treaty conferences have not provided "stringent standards."
"I cannot over-stress the extent to which the U.S. had difficulty in obtaining serious consideration of its positions" calling for double-bottomed hulls for vessels with a capacity over 20,000 deadweight tons, said Train, who participated in the negotiations. Double-bottomed hulls would provide two separate plates between oil cargoes and the ocean.
He noted that international treaties have dealt only with standards for new vessels. "Unless increased attention is directed to the retrofit of existing tankers, I personally see no way that major additional protection by way of design and construction standards can be secured over the next decade or longer," he said.
Retrofitting, or modifying the tankers, would reduce intentional discharges, in which vessels clean their tankes by flushing leftover oil into the ocean, Train said. The National Academy of Science estimates that 90 per cent of oil-related pollution is intentional.
Liability legislation died last year in the Senate Public Works Committee, which had joint juridsiction with the Commerce Committee. "If the oil spill liability legislation of which you were the author in the lst Congress had become law, rust buckets like the Argo Merchant would no doubt have been out of service as far as U.S. trade is concerned," Brooke told the committee.
"We meet establish full liability for cleanup costs, liability to be paid to third parties who suffer damages, and a fund from which monies can be drawn immediately pending court action on various claims."