Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Congress passed the Water Quality Improvement Act, which determined liability in the event of an oil spill and increased the resultant penalties assessed by the federal government.

Summary of Event

On April 3, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a major water-pollution control bill. The Water Quality Improvement Act became a new law enacted primarily to prevent oil spills by assigning more stringent liability to the companies responsible for those spills and significantly increasing the penalties assessed by the government. Oil spills Water Quality Improvement Act (1970) Ecological disasters Liability, corporate [kw]Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties (Apr. 3, 1970)[Congress Mandates Oil Spill Liabilities and Penalties] [kw]Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties, Congress Mandates (Apr. 3, 1970)[Oil Spill Liabilities and Penalties, Congress Mandates] [kw]Liabilities and Penalties, Congress Mandates Oil-Spill (Apr. 3, 1970) [kw]Penalties, Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and (Apr. 3, 1970) Oil spills Water Quality Improvement Act (1970) Ecological disasters Liability, corporate [g]North America;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] [g]United States;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] [c]Environmental issues;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] [c]Disasters;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] [c]Energy;Apr. 3, 1970: Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties[10770] Muskie, Edmund Cramer, William Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Weingand, Alvin C.

Until Japanese shipbuilders launched the world’s first supertanker, the Idemitsu Maru, Idemitsu Maru (ship) in 1966, oil spills had caused only relatively minor environmental problems. Before this time, oil tankers had normally carried only 10,000 to 15,000 tons of cargo and supplies, but by the mid-1970’s, the largest supertankers could hold 500,000 tons. Older ships not only had less capacity but also tended to carry refined petroleum products that were lighter and less viscous than the crude oil supertankers began to transport. The refined products evaporated much more quickly when inadvertently discharged into the environment. Moreover, the design that provided the supertanker with its tremendous carrying capacity also rendered the ship more vulnerable to disaster. To lower the ships’ weight, engineers reduced the number of storage compartments on board. A single rupture in a supertanker’s hull, therefore, was more likely to produce a large, environmentally dangerous spill.

Shortly after the introduction of these behemoth tankers, the Torrey Canyon, Torrey Canyon (ship) one of the world’s largest vessels, ran aground in the Scilly Isles near the coast of England. Thirty-six million gallons of crude oil spilled into the English Channel, and detergents used in cleanup proved toxic to marine life. Other less severe spills in 1968, such as those of the Ocean Eagle and the General Coloctronis, underscored the problem these supertankers posed to the environment.

Environmentalists and legislators around the world quickly reacted to this major new threat to the earth’s oceans. As early as 1967, Democratic senator Edmund Muskie (from Maine), often hailed in the ensuing years as a strong environmental legislator, introduced Senate bill 2740. Vehemently opposed by oil-industry lobbyists, this bill, which subjected oil polluters to civil penalties, never made it to the House of Representatives. The next year, both the House and the Senate debated proposed oil-spill legislation, but pressure from the oil industry again forced an impasse. In 1969, convinced that effective enforcement was a key element in protecting the quality of the earth’s waterways, Muskie again sponsored a bill designed to curb oil spills. Different versions of this bill, which was destined to become the Water Quality Improvement Act, were passed by the House on April 16, 1969, and the Senate on October 8.

The two bills differed primarily in the conditions and extent of liability each required to cover the costs of damages resulting from spills from vessels or from onshore and offshore wells or storage facilities. The House-passed bill, the more lenient of the two bills, held the owner or operator of a vessel liable only if proven willful or negligent in the discharge of oil into navigable waters of the United States. The ceiling on costs recoverable from the owner in this version was the lesser of either $10 million or $100 per gross registered ton. The Senate bill held owners absolutely liable, except where spills were the result of an “act of God,” of war, or of U.S. government negligence. The Senate’s limit on monetary liability was the lesser of either $14 million or $125 per gross ton. Unable to reach a compromise, the Senate, on October 8, asked that a conference committee be established to reconcile the two versions.

Besides Muskie, major proponents of the Senate bill were Republican senator J. Caleb Boggs Boggs, J. Caleb from Delaware and Democratic representative John A. Blatnik Blatnik, John A. from Minnesota. Florida’s Republican representative, William Cramer, provided the strongest argument for the House version of the bill, the version favored by Nixon. Resigned to the fact that some oil-spill legislation was inevitable, the oil industry focused its lobbying on limiting the extent of the liability its companies would face in the event of a spill. Compromise did not come easily. Only public outcry over two other major oil spills finally led to a break in a five-month deadlock on the part of the conferees.

One of these two oil spills happened more than eight months before the conference began. On January 28, 1969, an offshore oil well owned by the Union Oil Company had exploded, spewing tons of crude oil into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. Within days, nearby beaches were covered with black, sticky crude oil, and hundreds of species of marine and other wildlife were threatened. The citizens of Santa Barbara County, who had lobbied unsuccessfully to prevent the initial drilling in the channel, were outraged. They began to organize to bring this newest environmental danger to the attention of both the public and the government. One of their most successful ventures was the formation of the group Get Oil Out! Get Oil Out! (GOO!).

Alvin C. Weingand, a founder and former state senator, became one of the group’s most vocal advocates. GOO!, insisting that Union Oil was liable for the damage, collected Union credit cards that had been destroyed by disgruntled customers and organized a boycott of the company. They circulated petitions and prompted local residents to encourage government intervention by mailing oil samples to their representatives in Congress. They also organized a sail-in, during which protestors on boats encircled the offshore Union Oil platforms. Because of the publicity generated by such tactics, when the next major spill occurred, the members of the House and Senate committees were under great pressure to quickly remedy the oil-spill problem.

The turning point in House-Senate negotiations came after the second major oil spill, when on February 13, 1970, a Greek tanker, the Delian Apollon, Delian Apollon (ship) ran aground in the Old Tampa Bay near St. Petersburg, Florida, part of Representative Cramer’s district. Long an obdurate opponent of the Senate version of the bill and a recognized stumbling block in the congressional negotiations, Cramer quickly realized that the absolute liability proposed by the Senate would have forced a quicker resolution of the problem in St. Petersburg. His constituents agreed. Affecting a delicate about-face, Cramer yielded to his erstwhile opponents, and on March 24, the conferees agreed to a compromise on the deadlocked bill. The next day, both the Senate and the House passed the bill, and on April 3, Nixon signed it into law.

The Water Quality Improvement Act firmly declared it illegal to discharge any oil into the navigable waters of the United States. It strengthened the federal government’s powers to respond to such pollution by authorizing the U.S. government to act to remove an oil spill if the owner failed to do so and by requiring the president, within sixty days, to prepare a national contingency plan for removal of spilled oil.

The new law also adopted the concept of absolute liability. With the exceptions of cases which could only be attributed to its own negligence, to war, or to natural disasters, the government would no longer have to prove gross negligence on the part of oil companies to recover cleanup costs. In the compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill, the limits on fines assessed for spills from tankers was set at the lesser of either $14 million or $100 per gross ton. For onshore or offshore spills from wells or storage facilities, the ceiling was $8 million. In either case, all cleanup costs could be recovered by the government if the discharges were proven to be the result of willful misconduct or negligence. Any individual or company that failed to report a spill or any other violation of restrictions declared by the act would also be fined.

Furthermore, each oil-carrying vessel of more than 300 gross tons that entered a port of the United States had to provide evidence that it carried enough oil-spill liability insurance to match the maximum fines. The bill also provided guidelines for sewage discharge from ships in U.S. waters, authorized the Coast Guard to handle any necessary cleanups, and created an Office of Environmental Quality to act as the staff for the president’s advisory and policy-making Council on Environmental Quality.


In both his state of the union address State of the union address;1970 in January, 1970, and in a special message to Congress in the following month, Nixon declared that the 1970’s must be the decade when the United States made restitution for the environmental excesses of the past. He stressed that the time had come to clean up the planet. The Water Quality Improvement Act that he signed two months later was the first of many environmental laws Congress passed during the decade to help accomplish this goal. The adoption of the act set a precedent for other environmental bills, including the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments, the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the 1972 Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Moreover, this new focus on environmental issues led to the creation on December 2, 1970, of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As with other laws on environmental issues, oil-spill legislation prior to 1970 had been ambiguous at best. The first bill to address the problem—the Oil Pollution Act Oil Pollution Act (1924) of 1924—authorized the secretary of the interior to direct any cleanup after oil spills and established moderate fines for spills from vessels. These fines could only be collected, however, if the government could prove that the spill was the result of gross or willful negligence on the part of the vessel’s owner. The 1924 act did not address spills from onshore or offshore drilling or storage facilities. The first major comprehensive water-pollution legislation was enacted in 1948 when Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. This act established the primacy of state governments in the institution of water-control programs and provided funding for such programs. Even taken together, these two bills failed to address the problems created by major spills.

Senator Muskie, as well as his like-minded colleagues in the Senate and the House, environmentalists, and concerned citizens, hailed the new law as a major breakthrough in the control of oil spills. In 1972, in the hopes of centralizing all water-pollution legislation, the law was incorporated into Section 311 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (later known as Clean Water Act). Despite the law’s passage, Congress, faced with massive spills and ever-escalating costs for cleanup, continued for years to debate the issue of oil spills and comprehensive oil-spill liability legislation. Not until 1990, in the wake of the tragic spill from the Exxon Valdez, did Congress pass new legislation, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Oil spills Water Quality Improvement Act (1970) Ecological disasters Liability, corporate

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Joanna. Oil Spills. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. A study of the environmental aspects of oil spills, with chapters on the history of oil spills; response, cleanup, and rehabilitation; and the effect of spills on wildlife, fish, birds, humans, and vegetation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurley, William D. Environmental Legislation. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1971. A discussion of pollution-control legislation of the early 1970’s. Concise chapters focusing on major pollutants provide an excellent overview of the government’s response to environmental problems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackenthun, Kenneth M. Toward a Cleaner Aquatic Environment. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Protection Agency, 1973. A useful summary of all aspects of the water-pollution problem. Examines various kinds of pollutants and methods of controlling them, pollution legislation, and federal programs aimed at abatement. Includes helpful illustrations, diagrams, notes, appendixes, and a glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oppenheimer, Bruce Ian. Oil and the Congressional Process. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1974. A study of how lobbying by the oil industry affected the development of environmental legislation during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Focuses on the interaction between oil-industry representatives and Congress during the initiation and adoption of the Water Quality Improvement Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ornitz, Barbara E., and Michael A. Champ. Oil Spills First Principles: Prevention and Best Response. New York: Elsevier, 2002. A guide to the prevention of oil spills and to the critically important first-response aspect of spills and spill recovery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potter, Jeffrey. Disaster by Oil: Oil Spills, Why They Happen, What They Do, How We Can End Them. New York: Macmillan, 1973. A thorough account of the major oil spills, from the Torrey Canyon to Santa Barbara, which spurred the public and the government into action to remedy this form of pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scheffer, Victor B. The Shaping of Environmentalism in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. An easily digestible history of the environmental movement from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Chapters on the oceans, citizen involvement, and congressional action are particularly helpful for setting a context for the passage of the Water Quality Improvement Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sullivan, George. Supertanker! The Story of the World’s Biggest Ships. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978. The author describes the evolution in the design of oil tankers that led to the development of the supertanker. Includes a chapter on oil pollution that details the equipment, much of which is still in use, deployed to clean up oil spills. Richly illustrated.

First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed

Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act

Congress Passes the Water Resources Research Act

Congress Strengthens Water Laws

Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground

Alaskan Oil Discovery Sparks Controversy

Offshore Oil Well Spill Blankets Santa Barbara Coastline

Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created

Congress Amends the Clean Air Act

Categories: History