New rules on oil spill response plans

Regulations partly implementing an international treaty on oil pollution emergency planning took effect on 15 May.1 And new curbs on oil discharges from shipping will come into force around the UK coast in August 1999.

The new regulations on oil pollution emergency plans implement part of the 1990 global Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation, introduced in response to the massive oil spill from the Exxon Valdez off Alaska a year earlier (ENDS Report 191, pp 36-37).

The regulations apply to harbour authorities with an annual turnover of over £1 million, other harbours and oil handling facilities able to accommodate tankers and other vessels of more than a defined tonnage, and harbours and oil handling facilities designated by the Secretary of State on the grounds that their activities involve a "significant risk" of discharge of more than 10 tonnes of oil or which are in areas of "significant environmental sensitivity" or where a discharge of oil or other substances could cause "significant economic damage."

These bodies will be under a duty to have oil pollution emergency plans. By August 1999, they must submit their plans to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for approval. The Agency will be able to direct them to amend their plans if they are inconsistent with the National Contingency Plan for oil spills or "not appropriate" for dealing with oil pollution incidents.

The same requirements apply to operators of offshore installations, although their plans will be subject to approval by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Harbour authorities and oil handling facilities will have to "fully review" their plans every five years and resubmit them to the Agency for approval. Major changes which could affect the validity or effectiveness or a plan must also trigger a review.

The regulations also require UK ships, offshore operators, harbour authorities and oil handling facilities to report oil discharges to HM Coastguard "without delay".

The National Contingency Plan is still under review following the Sea Empress disaster. Also still under consideration is the imposition of a duty on local authorities to have oil spill response plans meshing with the national plan. Powers to impose such a duty were provided by the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997.

Another new marine pollution measure in the pipeline is an Order to enable the UK to ratify a 1996 protocol which amended the 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims.2 The protocol raised the 1976 limits on shipowners' liability for maritime claims by about two-and-a-half times.

The protocol does not apply to oil pollution damage caused by tankers, which are covered by a separate regime. The new Order will also not apply the protocol to claims arising from chemical spills at sea. Larger amounts of compensation for these are available under the 1996 Hazardous and Noxious Substances Convention (ENDS Report 256, p 44 ), although this has yet to enter into force.

Meanwhile, the date for entry into force of new restrictions on oil discharges around the UK coast has been fixed at 1 August 1999. The move by the International Maritime Organization follows an agreement at the 1995 North Sea conference that the North Sea and neighbouring waters off north-west Europe should be given "special area" status under the 1973/78 Marpol Convention on oil pollution. Certain operational oil discharges from ships are permitted under this treaty, but much stricter rules apply within "special areas".

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