An article Sunday said Finland has a policy encouraging double- hull oil tankers. Finland's oil tax is imposed on tankers that do not have double bottoms, which are partial double hulls. (Published 8/9/90)

Congress, apparently fed up with a 16-month gush of marine oil spills stretching from Alaska to New York, has voted to increase eightfold the pollution liability of tanker ship owners and allow the federal government to immediately take over cleanup of oil spills.

With the memory of the massive Exxon Valdez wreck still in their minds and with oil lapping at marshes in Galveston Bay, the legislators placed the United States at odds with almost all of the world's shipping companies by requiring double hulls on all oil tankers calling at U.S. ports by 2010.

The Senate passed the bill 99 to 0 on Thursday and the House sent it to President Bush 360 to 0 early yesterday morning. The White House has expressed some reservations, but Bush is expected to sign it.

The vote reflected a rising level of disgust with almost every aspect of oil shipping and cleanup efforts, including a slow response to several recent major oil spills. There was accompanying confusion over who was in charge of the cleanups, and efforts were hindered by contingency plans that looked good on paper but were confounded by lack of working cleanup equipment. Hours were lost before cleanup operations began in the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez spill of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound because anti-pollution equipment at the scene did not work or was inadequate.

In the 16 months since the Exxon Valdez spilled tons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, there have been at least five spills in New York harbor, three near Linden, N.J., two in Texas waters and one off California.

The legislation also addresses two areas that are certain to grow in importance: use of alcohol and drugs aboard ship, and crew fatigue and boredom caused by shipping company efforts to cut the number of crewmen to the bare minimum.

Here are the major provisions of the bill:

The maximum pollution liability for ship owners would increase from the current $150 per gross ton to $1,200 per gross ton. There would be no liability limit in the case of willful misconduct, gross negligence, violation of federal standards, failure to report the spill or refusal to participate in the cleanup. A special trust fund, derived from fees on oil shipments, would provide compensation up to $1 billion per spill.

Single-hull tankers would be phased out, based on size and age, by 2010 in the U.S. trade, and until then at least two tugs would be required to accompany any single-hull ships in certain sensitive areas such as Prince William Sound and Puget Sound.

The president could immediately take over cleanup responsibility for any oil spill, charging the cost to the ship owner up to liability limits. Ten Coast Guard pollution response teams would be set up, and ports and ships would be required to have approved plans showing they had contracted with private parties to begin immediate cleanup of "worst-case" spills.

The Coast Guard must review the automobile driving record of any person applying for or renewing merchant marine licenses, and may revoke the licenses of anyone convicted of drunken or reckless driving.

Members of tanker crews could work no more than 15 hours per day or 36 hours in any three-day period.

The double-hull requirement is likely to cause ripples throughout the world shipping community. Currently, only Finland has a national policy favoring double hulls.

Royal Dutch Shell, whose tankers made 93 trips to U.S. ports in 1989, already has announced that it will limit its ships to the deepwater Louisiana Offshore Oil Port.

Conoco, by contrast, has announced an order for two new supertankers with double hulls.

The legislation essentially ends debate within the shipping industry on how best to design a new generation of tankers to prevent or mitigate spills. The action comes as worldwide tanker construction is expected to boom because many tankers are reaching the end of their design life and new types of steel and computers make new tankers more efficient.

Shippers have made it known that double hulls are their least favorite solution to the spill problem.

Some ship owners say they consider double hulls dangerous because gases could build up in the space between the inner and other hull and cause an explosion. But ships that carry hazardous material or liquid natural gas or liquid propane already must have double hulls, and there have been no such problems.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimated that the Exxon Valdez spill would have been almost negligible if the ship had had a double bottom. Bligh Reef sliced 11 feet into the bottom of the ship. A double bottom of the standard thickness -- 1/15th of the ship's width -- would have left 15 feet of space between the inner and outer hulls. Because of buckling, the board said a small amount of oil might have spilled from one tank -- instead, almost 11 million gallons spilled.

The shipping industry says the same safety margin can be met through other means.

Among the least expensive options, industry executives say, is hydrostatic balance -- loading the tanker only to the level that the pressure caused by the weight of the oil inside the ship equals the pressure of water outside. That would mean some spillage from a hole in the hull but no great gushing as in the Exxon Valdez incident. That spill stopped when the ship lost about 15 percent of its load and pressures equalized. Other options include automatic vacuum systems that suck seawater into a hole rather than allow oil to gush out.