Victory For States’ Rights In Environmental Ruling

A federal appeals court has overturned a ruling that tossed out key provisions of a Massachusetts state law aimed at preventing oil spills, a move environmentalists hailed as a victory in efforts to beef up protection of the state’s waterways and coastline.

Massachusetts passed the Oil Spill Prevention Act in 2004 after a Bouchard Transportation Co. barge struck a rocky ledge at the mouth of Buzzards Bay and spilled 98,000 gallons of oil, polluting more than 90 miles of shoreline along southeastern Massachusetts and disabling more than 100,000 acres of shellfish bed.

The Prevention Act created rules and regulations governing vessels that transport oil in Massachusetts waters, including requiring tugboat escorts for vessels traveling in certain waters, enhancing the staffing requirements for tank barges and tow vessels in Buzzards Bay, and requiring that certain vessels get a certificate of financial assurance.

The federal government, along with barge operators, challenged the law, arguing that federal laws already mandate regulations for oil tankers. Last year, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro threw out main provisions of the law, saying that it was pre-empted by federal laws already in existence, such as the Port and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 and the Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978.

But the federal appeals court overturned Tauro’s decision last week, saying that he made his ruling too quickly in favor of the federal government without using the careful analysis required by the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve federal-state conflicts in cases such as these.

Legal action will continue surrounding this matter and it is unclear whether the Oil Spill Prevention Act will be enforced while Tauro is reconsidering the case, but it is an interesting instance of a states successfully challenging the monolithic power of federal pre-emption.

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