Longhurst bill would remove monetary cap on fines for oil spills

DOVER – Legislation eliminating a 35-year-old monetary cap on the fine that can be imposed for oil spills cleared the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday and is on its way to the full House for a vote.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, House Bill 32 would update Delaware’s Oil Pollution Act to make it consistent with federal law and remove liability limits for oil spills, a limit that was established in 1977 and has not been adjusted for inflation. Currently, Delaware’s liability limits are well below federal limits.

“Liability limits protect the party responsible for the spill and leaves taxpayers on the hook to clean up the environmental damage,” said Rep. Longhurst, D-Delaware City. “With 3,000 vessels carrying billions of gallons of oil traveling up and down the Delaware River each year, we need to update this law to protect our state and ensure that if an oil spill occurs, those responsible will be held financially accountable to clean up their mess.”

Oil spills are infrequent in the Delaware River and Bay, but there have been some incidents throughout the last 40 years. The largest spill was the Corinthos in 1975, when 11 million gallons were spilled at Marcus Hook. In a one-year period starting in September 1985, three separate spills dumped more than 900,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River. And in 2004, the Athos I spilled 265,000 gallons of oil – less than 2 percent of its 19.4 million gallon cargo – into the Delaware River.

While notable oil spills have been confined to Delaware’s waters, the bill also would eliminate the fine cap for spills that occur on land, which Senate prime sponsor Sen. Nicole Poore said is important when considering the increased number of railcars that are traveling to the Delaware City refinery.

“While I believe that Norfolk Southern and the PBF refinery will take precautions to ensure the safe transportation of oil, with the amount of oil passing through our communities, we have to make sure we are protecting our citizens,” said Sen. Poore, D-Delaware City. “This is an insurance policy for Delaware to remove the state’s liability and ensure our environment is protected should a spill occur.”

Surrounding states Maryland and Pennsylvania have unlimited liability, while Virginia has unlimited liability for cleanup and a $10 million limit on damages.