Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters

The Oil Pollution Act of 1924 was the first U.S. law to establish civil and criminal penalties for the grossly negligent or intentional discharge of oil from a vessel into U.S. waters.

Summary of Event

On June 7, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Oil Pollution Act, the first U.S. law to deal specifically with oil pollution of the navigable waters of the United States and its shorelines. The law imposed civil and criminal penalties for grossly negligent or willful discharge of oil into the sea from U.S. and foreign ships. It made exceptions for unavoidable accidents and for cases in which oil was discharged to avoid danger to life or property. In the context of the law, “oil” is defined as petroleum hydrocarbons that are obtained from underground deposits and that may exist in the form of crude oil, fuel oil, heavy diesel oil, and lubricating oil. The scope of the law was limited to offshore pollution within fifty nautical miles of land. [kw]Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters (June 7, 1924)
[kw]Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters, Oil (June 7, 1924)
[kw]Act Sets Penalties for Polluters, Oil Pollution (June 7, 1924)
[kw]Polluters, Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for (June 7, 1924)
Oil Pollution Act (1924)
Shipping industry, oil pollution
Environmental law
[g]United States;June 7, 1924: Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters[06100]
[c]Environmental issues;June 7, 1924: Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters[06100]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 7, 1924: Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters[06100]
[c]Natural resources;June 7, 1924: Oil Pollution Act Sets Penalties for Polluters[06100]
Coolidge, Calvin
Willis, Frank B.
Lineberger, Walter F.

In 1924, preventing the deliberate discharge of oil by transport tankers was impeded by the technical inability of ships to separate residue oil, called “clingage,” from water in their ballast tanks (ballast is the water used in a ship to balance it on heavy and stormy seas, especially when the ship is empty of cargo, as on a return voyage to its home port). A ship’s oily ballast water had to be discharged before the ship reached port in order to avoid polluting the harbor. The process of cleaning the tank required pumping the entire contents overboard; the tank was then refilled with seawater. If the journey was long enough and the seas were not too heavy, the oil in the ballast tanks would float to the top. This small amount of oil from each ship—0.3 percent of a tank—could have been saved, but a practical method to do so was not generally available. (Some British ports had barges in their harbors for pumping clingage oil off the top layer of ballast.)

Upon nearing their home ports, most ships simply dumped their oily ballast water over the side and refilled their tanks with water. The oil pumped out this way, however, eventually washed to shore along all the tanker routes of the world. In addition, harbors became intolerably polluted, because some oil was dumped from engines and pipelines in harbors and at docks. One of the worst examples of such pollution was in New York Harbor, where in 1921 it was reported that the wharves and pilings on the harbor front were saturated with oil and the water was coated with a layer of oil. This oil saturation devastated marine life and posed a fire hazard.

Various organizations such as the Audubon Society and the National Coast Anti-Pollution League, as well as newspaper editors speaking for local groups, began to urge congressional action to address the problem of oil pollution. The Audubon Society reported that thousands of waterfowl were dying annually as a result of their plumage being covered with oil. The fishing industry Fishing;commercial was also being affected to a serious extent. In 1880, the coastal waters of the United States produced 600,000 barrels of salt mackerel in one year; by 1921, the catch had dropped to 43,000 barrels, in large part because of the destruction of spawning fish from the effects of oil pollution. It was also estimated that between 1918 and 1923 oil pollution caused an 80 percent decrease in oyster production off the coast of Connecticut. In 1923, Los Angeles had become the world’s largest oil market. There, the editor of the newspaper the Express reported that oil-pollution damage to ships, port, fishermen’s income, and residents had become a paramount issue.

The problem of oil dumping was reaching dramatic levels: The number of oil-burning and oil-carrying ships rose from 364 in 1911 to 2,536 in 1921. In 1924, the United States exported more than 4 billion gallons of petroleum products. If 0.3 percent of this amount was clingage, then nearly 13 million gallons of oil products were dumped from that source alone.

Prior to passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, the only law that could be applied to tanker dumping was the Refuse Act of 1899, under which it was illegal to discard any detrimental substance into the sea in territorial waters to a three-mile limit. That law also applied to dumping from land locations. Those found guilty of violating the law were required to pay fines and removal costs, and the law also provided for rewards for informants. In 1868, the Canadian government prohibited the discharge of ballast, coal, chemicals, and other polluting substances into waters where fishing was practiced, although the law did not mention oil specifically. In 1918, the United States and Canada signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) to protect migratory birds, but that act did not recognize damage to birds by oil pollution until 1948, when an addendum was written. Although it is one of the few treaties in North America that acknowledges that valuable resources cross political boundaries, it has not been consistently applied.

The debate in Congress that produced two bills leading to the Oil Pollution Act elicited strong opinions from the oil industry. The Willis Bill, written by Senator Frank B. Willis of Delaware on January 8, 1924, proposed to make it unlawful to dump any kind of oil product, crude or refined, from either ships or land-based refineries. The law would have been administered by the War Department, because the issue it sought to address concerned navigable waters. The Willis Bill also imposed fines and imprisonment at the option of the courts. The oil industry objected to the provisions of this bill and wanted to exempt land operations from controls. The Lineberger Bill, proposed by Walter F. Lineberger, a House representative from Long Beach, California, was different from the Willis Bill in several respects: It included regulation of oil from ships only, it imposed no prison penalties, and the law would be administered by the Department of Commerce. The Lineberger Bill also provided for investigations of land industry. The oil industry, the secretary of the interior, and the deputy commissioner of fisheries supported this bill.

The two houses of Congress reached a compromise on the two bills in order to protect the interests of the public and industry as quickly as possible. The law limited liability to vessels in coastal navigable waters. Violation of the act could result in fines and prison terms, and the Coast Guard was given authority to revoke the licenses of ship captains who broke the law. Administration of the law was the responsibility of the War Department until 1966, when it was transferred to the Department of the Interior.


Public concern over conservation problems associated with oil pollution began to surface after World War I, when the shipping industry began using oil rather than coal to power ships. This shift added to the oil-pollution problem, which was further exacerbated by vessel accidents, nonmarine accidents, and operations that dumped automobile waste oil into water systems. About 70 percent of the world’s oil traveled by sea.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1924 was a starting point for the regulation of an industry that was growing so quickly technology could not keep up with safety and pollution standards. Shipbuilders constructed tankers of such enormous size that, at first, the ships’ engines were not powerful enough to stop the giant ships in time to avert accidents. At the request of Congress, President Coolidge called an International Conference on Oil Pollution, International Conference on Oil Pollution which was held June 8-17, 1926. The conference was attended by representatives of thirteen maritime nations that recognized coastal oil pollution as a problem. The recommendations that came out of the conference included extending the prohibition on dumping from 50 to 150 nautical miles in order to protect marine life and encouraging ships to install oil separators to conserve oil and protect natural resources.

Traditionally, international laws concerning liability for accidents on the open sea have focused on damage to the beneficial uses of the sea, and prosecution has been vested in the governments of origin of the ships involved. When enforcement has conflicted with economic concerns, it has often been lax. To the extent that oil pollution resulted in public protest and damage of domestic resources, the laws that were passed in each country called attention to the need for international action. This was the case with the Oil Pollution Act of 1924. In practice, the law proved difficult to enforce, because the high seas of international territory constitute a vast region. Adherence to a law that depended on international commitment to an honor code was difficult to verify. The 1924 law relied primarily on the Coast Guard to discipline domestic vessels polluting territorial waters and to control foreign ships that acted with negligence. Unless a ship was caught in the act of committing a violation, however, there was no way to prove responsibility for an infraction.

The deficiencies in the 1924 law eventually set in motion legislation that culminated in the 1970 Water Quality Improvement Act, which amended the 1924 act. The 1970 law prohibited discharges of oil from offshore and onshore facilities and empowered the president to order measures to prevent damage to the environment and to remove spilled oil. The 1970 law removed the need for criminal prosecution when a violation is reported by the ship owner. Any other domestic or foreign ship owned by a person operating a violating ship can be denied permission to gain access to a domestic port. Responsibility was thus placed on ship owners to keep all their ships in good operating condition. In this way, Congress attempted to focus attention on prevention of oil spills rather than on after-the-fact punishment.

The establishment of oil-pollution laws motivated the oil industry to develop the technology to prevent excess discharge of oil in the cleaning of tanks and in the handling of dirty ballast water. The new methods included load-on-top systems, by which oil and water are separated and the water is drawn out. The new load of oil is added on top of the remaining oil, and all of it is discharged at the port of destination. Another method, called crude-oil washing, uses the oil itself to disperse and clean the tank residues. Ballast water is taken onboard after the cleaning. These methods are cleaner than the methods of tank washing used in the 1920’s. The load-on-top method discharges only 25 percent of the oil of older methods, and the crude-oil washing method discharges only 10 percent of the oil of the load-on-top method.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1924 set a precedent for action on a federal level to control oil pollution from domestic and foreign vessels. The deficiencies of the law encouraged stronger laws and public action, which eventually required industry to develop technology to prevent spills. Oil Pollution Act (1924)
Shipping industry, oil pollution
Environmental law

Further Reading

  • Abbott, Lawrence F. “Oil on Troubled Waters.” Outlook 136 (April 16, 1924): 638. Editorial expresses the public’s sense of urgency in calling for congressional action on oil pollution. Describes the House and Senate bills in detail and emphasizes the need for a bill to save the environment, not to serve the special interests of government organizations or industry.
  • _______. “To Clean the Ocean of Oil.” Outlook 143 (May 5, 1926): 16. Editorial discusses the progress made in controlling oil pollution since the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924. Advocates more cooperation among nations to curb pollution.
  • Edwards, Max N. “Oil Pollution and the Law.” In Oil Pollution: Problems and Policies, edited by Stanley E. Degler. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1969. Provides a good background review on laws related to oil pollution. Includes a full copy of the Oil Pollution Act of 1924.
  • Mitchell, Ronald B. Intentional Oil Pollution at Sea: Environmental Policy and Treaty Compliance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994. Focuses on the issue of how to ensure that nations comply with the terms of international treaties aimed at reducing oil pollution. Combines theoretical analysis with an evaluation of changes in compliance over time.
  • Ross, William M. Oil Pollution as an International Problem. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973. Excellent legal resource contains a review of state and national jurisdictions, forms of liability used in courts that cover oil-pollution claims, and information on the historical development of oil-pollution laws. Explains the weaknesses in international laws regarding oil pollution.
  • Tan, Alan Khee-Jin. Vessel-Source Marine Pollution: The Law and Politics of International Regulation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Examines the history of international oil-pollution regulation and discusses how political, economic, and social forces affect antipollution treaties.
  • Wagnalls, Adam W. “The Oil Trouble on the Waters.” Literary Digest 79 (November 10, 1923): 14. Editorial details environmental damage caused by oil pollution in every coastal region of the United States. Explains the seriousness of the problem and asserts that legislation that includes international action can solve the problem.
  • Wardley-Smith, J., ed. The Control of Oil Pollution. London: Graham & Trotman, 1983. Provides detailed discussion of shipping methods for transportation, loading, and unloading of oil as well as chapters on the environmental effects of oil pollution on birds, fisheries, and plankton. Good resource for the general reader.

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