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Coast Guard objects to Mass. tanker law

Says stiff regulations would undermine federal rules in place

WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard, asserting federal jurisdiction over commercial traffic in coastal waterways, has asked Governor Mitt Romney's office not to enforce a new Massachusetts law designed to prevent oil spills.

Romney signed the law in August requiring tankers to navigate within designated channels, use local pilots to guide vessels, and use tugboats as escorts. The action came 16 months after a tanker ran aground in Buzzards Bay and coated miles of coastline with oil.

But the Coast Guard maintained in a letter to Romney last month that those provisions are preempted by existing federal regulations, and Tuesday the Guard followed up by proposing new rules intended to accomplish the purposes of the state law in Buzzards Bay, specifically.

"They overstepped the state's jurisdiction on maritime commerce and jeopardized the Coast Guard's ability to provide a uniform regulation regime necessary to protect the safety of maritime commerce and the environment," said Jolie Shifflet, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Coast Guard officials said that Romney and state Representative William Greene Jr., a Democrat from Billerica, were sent separate letters before the Legislature acted, cautioning them that many of the law's provisions would be void.

But Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said Tuesday the governor's office was not aware of the Coast Guard's concerns before the law was passed, "and certainly any concerns raised by the Coast Guard we would take seriously."

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and the governor's office plan to meet this week to discuss the Coast Guard's concerns and how to respond, Feddeman said.

The state law includes requirements for barge design and equipment, drug and alcohol testing, and the number of crew on board during towing -- other matters already regulated by the Coast Guard.

"Redundant and overlapping regulation is ineffective and problematic," Admiral Thomas H. Collins wrote in a Sept. 22 letter Romney asking the state to withhold enforcement of the entire law, although some provisions do not conflict with federal jurisdiction. For example, the law requires owners of certain large vessels to carry a $1 billion insurance policy, an issue under state control.

After the April 2003 spill, in which 22,000 to 98,000 gallons of number 6 oil poured into the bay when a barge's hull was torn, a Coast Guard-sponsored report concluded that "the risk for oil- or hazardous-material discharge in Buzzards Bay is relatively high, and that one method of reducing that risk might be to require escort tugs."

It was the latest in a series of spills and close calls over the past 35 years. In Buzzards Bay, which in 2002 was host to 10,000 commercial vessels and 1,200 tank barges, at least six tankers have run aground. Four of those accidents resulted in major fuel spills.

In 1998, Rhode Island found itself in a predicament with the Coast Guard similar to the one Massachusetts now faces. Responding to a 1996 oil spill of 825,000 gallons off Point Judith, Rhode Island lawmakers passed tougher laws for oil transporters. At the Coast Guard's request, the state's officials agreed to withhold enforcement, and the Legislature eventually repealed the law.

Other states, such as Washington, have unsuccessfully challenged Coast Guard jurisdiction. The US Supreme Court in 2000 ruled unanimously that Washington state's maritime regulations were preempted by federal law.

If Massachusetts officials refuse to withhold enforcement, the Coast Guard could sue the state.

The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners website says members of the American Waterways Operators operating in Massachusetts waters are complying with the law while they await clarification.

Ed Coletta, a department spokesman, said: "We're trying to move forward as we try to implement the individual pieces of that legislation." The meeting scheduled this week could determine if the agency withholds enforcement, he said.

Two public hearings on the proposed federal rules are scheduled: Nov. 16 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Nov. 17 at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. The Coast Guard will accept written comments through Dec. 27.

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