Concern Over Oil Tanker Accidents
Safety Demands in the Aftermath of Oil Spills
A spate of tanker accidents since mid-December has raised a public outcry about oil spills in or near American waters and spurred the government to seek more stringent safety regulation on seagoing commerce. The Senate Commerce Committee held hearings in January on the accidents that had occurred since the Argo Merchant ran aground off Nantucket Island on Dec. 15, causing the “biggest oil spill disaster… in American history.” This country “has just witnessed the worst rash of tanker accidents ever,” Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson (D Wash.) said on Jan. 11. He predicted that “the worst is yet to come.”
Describing the number of tanker disasters as “intolerable,” Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams issued new safety rules on Jan. 31, 11 days after he took office. Ships that do not meet the standards can be prohibited from entering U.S. waters by the Coast Guard, the agency in the Department of Transportation with authority to inspect and certify merchant vessels.
Congress' Office of Technology Assessment reported last November that the main causes of tanker accidents are structural failure, collisions, rammings and groundings, many of which are caused by human error. As a result of accidents, it said, tankers spill an average of 62 million gallons of oil a year—3.7 million gallons in waters within 50 miles of U.S. shores. In the last two weeks of 1976 alone, about 8 million gallons were spilled in American waters. The report also said that, worldwide, tankers “deliberately discharge 1 million tons [311 million gallons] each year… in routine ballasting and tank cleaning operations.” Other studies cite much higher figures for deliberate oil discharges.