U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment

To provide increased protection for the marine environment and public safety, the U.S. Congress approved the Port and Tanker Safety Act.

Summary of Event

After World War I, the United States and other emerging industrialized nations witnessed a tremendous growth in both oil imports and domestic movements of refined petroleum products. Movement of oil remained comparatively unregulated until the 1930’s, when a number of maritime casualties drew attention to some of the problems associated with maritime activities. Incidents involving loss of life, water pollution, and port safety prompted the government to enact the Tank Vessel Act of 1936, Tank Vessel Act (1936) which addressed tank vessels carrying flammable or combustible liquid cargoes. This act concentrated on fire protection, safety equipment, standards for crews, and a general tightening of federal authority over the shipping industry. The legislation did not, however, address authority for pollution prevention within ports in the United States. Federal authority over port safety could be invoked only for considerations of national security. Port and Tanker Safety Act (1978)
Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution
Marine life, protection
[kw]U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment (Oct. 17, 1978)
[kw]Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment, U.S. (Oct. 17, 1978)
[kw]Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment, U.S. Congress Requires (Oct. 17, 1978)
[kw]Marine Environment, U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard (Oct. 17, 1978)
[kw]Environment, U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine (Oct. 17, 1978)
Port and Tanker Safety Act (1978)
Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution
Marine life, protection
[g]North America;Oct. 17, 1978: U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment[03390]
[g]United States;Oct. 17, 1978: U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment[03390]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 17, 1978: U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment[03390]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 17, 1978: U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment[03390]
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy
Murphy, John M.
McCloskey, Paul N., Jr.

The 1936 legislation remained essentially unchanged until it was extensively revised by the Port and Waterways Safety Act of 1972. Port and Waterways Safety Act (1972) This act contained the 1970 presidential proposal to expand the U.S. Coast Guard’s Coast Guard, U.S. jurisdiction over all vessels that use U.S. ports and provided the Coast Guard with the authority to protect inland waters and adjacent shore areas from environmental harm and structural damage. The law included provisions to establish and operate services for vessel traffic, to require certain navigational equipment, and to control vessel traffic and movement. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard was slow to implement these provisions, mostly because of budgetary constraints. In 1976, a series of major tanker accidents focused public and congressional attention on the continued problem of marine pollution. The tremendous growth in maritime traffic, commensurate with a massive increase in oil importation and the existence of generally larger vessels, led to increasing damage to the environment from accidental spills and from normal tanker operations. It also became clear to U.S. officials that a lack of control over foreign ships calling on U.S. ports was a serious problem.

Results from federal studies of marine pollution conducted in late 1976 and early 1977, including a study of the shortcomings of the 1972 act, prompted President Jimmy Carter to announce a number of proposals to Congress in March, 1977. These included recommendations for new tanker regulations, spill liability, and U.S. ratification of the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973) More important, perhaps, the president directed the State Department to begin diplomatic efforts to improve the international system of tanker inspection and certification through the International Maritime Consultative Organization International Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO).

Continued tanker accidents, most notably that of the Amoco Cadiz
Amoco Cadiz (ship) in early 1978, coupled with diplomatic pressure from the United States, resulted in the early convening of IMCO’s Council Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention (TSPP). Given a climate of international concern over tanker pollution, the conference made recommendations to signatory nations to adopt provisions for tanker equipment, inspections, and certification.

Early activity in the Ninety-fifth Congress included the introduction of approximately thirty bills to address tanker safety, port safety, and environmental protection from oil. It was during the bill consolidation process that some congressional members and government officials expressed concern, arguing that the initial Senate bill contained provisions that severely departed from harmonization with concurrent international standards being proposed by IMCO. Many governments believed that unilateral U.S. imposition of tanker requirements on the international shipping community would seriously jeopardize international relationships. Many viewed the proposed U.S. legislation as hypocritical, illegal, and self-defeating, given the fact that the United States was already a signatory to the international agreements. Breaking away from international commitments (with subsequent loss of credibility among other maritime nations) was not viewed as a constructive way to bring about solutions to the worldwide oil pollution problem.

After much debate and committee work, an amended version of Senate Bill 682 was drafted from much of the language contained in a House version of the bill. The Senate eventually accepted the House changes to the bill and inserted its own minor alterations concerning offshore oil-drilling platforms and wider federal authority to impose stricter standards on domestic shipping than those being contemplated in the international TSPP conference. The amended Senate Bill 682—which ironically deleted the initial requirement for double-hulled tank vessels that the United States subsequently unilaterally mandated under OPA-90—passed both houses of Congress in October, 1978, and was signed into law by President Carter.

The law included provisions for mandatory state or federal pilots for every vessel calling on U.S. ports; expanded federal authority to investigate accidents and maintain ship and company performance databases; annual inspections of all tank vessels using U.S. ports; Coast Guard authority to deny entry or detain vessels that were not in compliance with the regulations; Coast Guard authority to issue regulations for domestic trade vessels that differed from regulations imposed by the multination agreement; federal authority to operate harbor traffic control systems (similar to those for aircraft); the requirement that certain tank vessels implement segregated ballast systems, crude-oil washing systems, and tank safety inert gas systems over a period of eight years; the requirement that tank vessels, except barges, carry electronic navigation and collision-avoidance equipment by 1982; implementation of new requirements for offshore lightering operations; prohibition of any ship docking in a U.S. port if it had dumped oil-tank washwater at sea; and authority for the secretary of transportation to assess stiffer civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance.


Quantitative statistics vary dramatically as they relate to sources of oil in the sea. The National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1976, for example, that of the 6.1 million metric tons of oil that reached the sea each year, only 35 percent could be attributed to the commercial movement of oil. Of this, 18 percent was directly attributable to tanker operations and a mere 3 percent to collisions, groundings, and explosions. Different studies estimated that 85 percent of the oil spilled into the sea was the result of tank cleaning, whereas others put the figure at 26 percent from accidental spills and routine ship discharges. These conflicting figures were used by various special-interest lobbies, depending on their political and philosophical agendas. Regardless of the viewpoint, however, it was undisputed that while the lowest percentage of oil came from accidental discharges such as groundings and collisions, those discharges always gained the most media attention and caused great public outcry.

The various provisions of the Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978 and those resulting from the international TSPP conference addressed issues that included prevention of accidental discharge through equipment, training, and traffic control; abatement of operational discharge through vessel design changes such as segregated ballast and crude-oil wash systems; and the use of terminal facilities to receive and recycle wastewater from washing out oil tanks (this was meant to discourage the practice of cleaning out huge oil tanks with water and pumping the liquid overboard).

The cleaning and segregated ballast systems eventually eliminated most of the routine oil pollution from tanker operations. These major equipment systems also caused the greatest financial burden on the maritime oil industry. Fitting an existing tanker in 1978 with a segregated ballast system cost approximately $2 million and reduced the vessel’s carrying capability by 20-25 percent. Crude-oil wash and inert gas systems cost about $1 million for each vessel. These requirements forced most ship owners to build entirely new vessels and retire older tonnage. The resultant shipbuilding boom lasted until the worldwide oil shortages of the early 1980’s.

For many operators, the cost of financing new vessels or retrofitting existing ones was prohibitively high and resulted in the replacement of competent operators with cheaper carriers who were willing to take chances. This rebound effect of regulation often contributed to yet more operational pollution and accidents. It was difficult to enforce laws on those who used the open sea. Oil slicks from tank cleaning and bilge pumping were common throughout the world in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, but the situation did improve as a result of the new regulations, and oil pollution in the sea from tanker operations was reduced.

Just how many catastrophic accidents were prevented as a result of better equipment and systems, stricter port movement regulations, and better crew and pilot training was not readily quantifiable. The fact that many accidents nevertheless continued to happen suggested that equipment-based regulation and political entreaties for international compliance to regulation may have overlooked other underlying causes.

Nevertheless, the 1978 Port and Tanker Safety Act and its influence on the international shipping community appeared to be instrumental in reducing worldwide pollution. The act forced a completely new operational doctrine for tanker operations into existence, along with technologically improved navigational safety measures. It also provided an inland vessel traffic control system designed to aid mariners at harbor entrance choke points, thereby avoiding growth of marine traffic congestion. Port and Tanker Safety Act (1978)
Environmental policy, U.S.;pollution
Marine life, protection

Further Reading

  • Barak, Joanne H. “Time Charters: Who Bears the Burden of Complying with Subsequent Legislation—The Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978.” George Washington Journal of International Law and Economics 16, no. 2 (1982): 271-298. Outlines the complexities of the vessel equipment provisions of the act with which oil-transporting companies were required to comply.
  • Peterson, Roger Andrew. Maritime Oil Tanker Casualties, 1964-1977: An Analysis of Safety and Policy Issues. Knoxville, Tenn.: UMI, 1982. Presents the business philosophy behind international oil transportation and government policies for the protection of the marine environment. Especially informative is a discussion of the human factor, which many lawmakers fail to recognize when considering solutions through equipment-oriented legislation.
  • Spyrou, Andrew G. From T-2 to Supertanker: Development of the Oil Tanker, 1940-2000. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2006. Describes the efforts of the oil tanker industry to improve these vessels’ safety and efficiency over time.
  • “Tanker Safety.” Congressional Quarterly Almanac 34 (1978): 713-714. Provides information on the rationale, background, and legislative history of the Port and Tanker Safety Act as well as a succinct outline of the provisions of the bill.

  • Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention. London: Oil Companies International Marine Forum, 1976. Describes the technological improvements in tanker practices for the abatement of chronic oil pollution resulting from oil carriage and transferring operations. Intended for the general reader.
  • U.S. Congress. House. United States Code: Congressional and Administrative News. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1978. Comprehensive legislative history details the congressional activity that led to the final version of Senate Bill 682.
  • Waters, W. G., II, T. D. Heaver, and T. Verrier. Oil Pollution from Tanker Operations: Causes, Costs, Controls. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1980. Describes tanker operations that cause oil pollution and offers information on the costs and benefits of alternatives in vessel operations.

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