Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Marine Pollution

Prepared by Martin R. Lee

Specialist in Environmental Policy
Environment arid Natural Resources Policy Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Ship-Based Pollution
Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution
Status of the Issue
International Efforts to Control Marine Pollution
Marine Pollution Agreements
Compensating for Marine Pollution Damage
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

The quality of ocean and coastal waters continues to be a public policy interest. Major coastal population growth and increases in potentially harmful activities in the United States and worldwide is a persistent concern.

Trans-boundary water pollution can endanger human health and marine resources, and economically damage a variety of resource-dependent activities such as commercial and recreational fishing. The ocean carriage of hazardous cargo, such as oil, is a vital, but potentially damaging, international trade. With this in mind, maritime nations have long sought to minimize this commerce's impacts on marine resources. In recent years, attention has turned to inland sources of pollution, generally involving much more toxic compounds, from point-sources such as facilities and non-point sources such as agricultural and urban runoff.

Background and Analysis

Ship-Based Pollution

For almost 100 years, since the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1898, there have been some restrictions on pollution from vessels. Legislation in the 1920s addressed oil tankers, further legislation in the 1970s spoke to tanker construction, operation and design, and the more recent comprehensive 1990 Oil Pollution Act are thought to have been successful in reducing the input of oil and other substances to marine waters.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) revised vessel design and operation requirements and extended a system of planning for, and responding to, oil spills. Among the requirements of the Act:

Planning for a Spill - The Act requires vessels and facilities to develop emergency response plans, identifying how they will respond to spills and what equipment will be available; most of these plans were finalized by 1993. The OPA also required federal and state agencies to develop national and regional response plans.

Many consider the current system to be effective in reducing overall oil pollution from ships. According to Oil Spill Intelligence Report, the number of oil spills worldwide in 1996 was the lowest since 1978.29 For U.S. oil spill incidents have dropped to levels considerably lower than levels of 20 years ago. There has been concern, however, about periodic spills from barges and smaller vessels. Such spills are of special concern since they often occur in near shore coastal waters and threaten sensitive resources. In the 104th Congress, there was action on legislation to address barge-related spills and legislation to address certain issues relating to financial responsibility requirements.

In the Coast Guard Authorization bill for FY1996 (P.L. 104-324 S.1004/H.R. 1361), Congress included Oil Pollution Act amendments changing the financial responsibility requirements for certain "offshore" facilities including marinas; the provisions set the limits at $35 million for offshore facilities seaward of the seaward boundary of a state, and $10 million for offshore facilities, such as marinas , located landward of the seaward boundary of a state. Another change was P.L.. 104-55 (H.R. 436) authorizing that animal fats and vegetable oils be treated differently from petroleum under OPA regulations. In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee reported a bill, S. 1730 (5. Rept. 104-292), which would have amended the OPA . Among the provisions were enhancements for prevention and response - to encourage the Coast Guard to promulgate rules on single hull vessels including barges - and clarification of the financial responsibility requirements for terminals and marinas.

Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution

With regulatory attainments for ship-based pollution under numerous federal law and international agreements, attention has turned to land-based and inland sources of coastal and marine pollution. Upland point sources and non-point sources are believed to yield significant harmful, toxic emissions to marine waters. Designing a control mechanism for them, however, presents more challenges for policymakers, both domestically and globally.

In 1987, Congress established nonpoint source provisions. It authorized using state water quality management programs) backed by EPA technical and financial assistance, to address non point sources of water pollution. For the most part, this has meant addressing problems that were regional or local. Currently, the issue is how to move forward with the nonpoint source program1 whether minimum national standards should be adopted and how to allocate financing to address nonpoint source pollution. Congress may consider these in future Clean Water Reauthorization efforts.

Status of the Issue

International Efforts to Control Marine Pollution

International agreements have focused on accidental and intentional ship-based marine pollution, primarily involving petroleum, which can affect many nations. Under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNP.), several marine pollution agreements have established multi-state mechanisms to reduce marine pollution. This historic international concern for ocean waters has evolved in two ways: from a focus on oil pollution to other toxic substances, and from concentrating on ship sources to examining all possible emissions sources, including those shoreside and inland. In addition, whereas past treaties have had generic approaches for all water bodies, there have been new special approaches to certain areas, including the North, Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. The two main areas involve regulating activities to reduce marine pollution and establishing compensation mechanisms in the event of marine pollution damages. IMO also has been very active in marine safety and vessel traffic management.30

Marine Pollution Agreements

Governmental awareness that nations are environmentally interconnected occurred early in the area of marine pollution, where the first international marine pollution treaty was signed in 1954. It addressed only oil and was replaced by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973 (MARPOL 73/78), which had much broader scope and coverage.31 MARPOL 73/78 covers ship pollution from several sources including oil (Annex I), noxious bulk liquids (Annex II), hazardous freight (Annex III), sewage (Annex IV), and garbage (Annex V). The United States is a Party to the convention and annexes I, II, which are mandatory2 and Annexes III, and V. The United States ratified Annex III on June 25, 1991. It entered into force internationally on July 1, 1992. The United States implements MARPOL largely through the Port and Tanker Safety Act, the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships, and the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. The 1990 Oil Pollution Act also reflects this convention.

Since its origins in 1973, MARPOL has been continually developing with a major expansion in 1978 and numerous other protocols since then. On March 3, 1996, a number of amendments entered into force involving port-state ship inspections. In December 1996, the IMO's Marine Safety Committee adopted a draft amendment to MARPOL to improve the stability of double hull tankers. IMO/MARPOL evolving character is underscored by a planned fall 1997 London conference to adopt measures to prevent air pollution from ships through development of a new MARPOL Annex VI. Other issues under study include eliminating unwanted organisms in ballast water and reducing the toxicity of anti-fouling paints.

The United States is also a party to the 1972 International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, popularly known as the London Dumping Convention (LDC). The LDC bans the intentional ocean dumping of several categories of waste including high-level radioactive wastes and chemical warfare agents, and allows disposal of certain other substances through a permit system. This convention is implemented through Title I of the 1972 Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (P.L. 92-532, also called the Ocean Dumping Act). On November 8, 1996, IMO adopted a protocol to the 1972 Convention which adopts more restrictions on such activities including incinerating wastes at sea, and dumping low-level radioactive wastes and industrial wastes.

The IMO develops and manages international and regional marine pollution agreements. For instance, the IMO designated the Gulf of Mexico a special area under Annex V of MARPOL (thus prohibiting ships from dumping garbage and plastics anywhere in the Gulf). On November 30, 1990, the IMO adopted the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response, and Cooperation. Signatories to this agreement would be required to prepare oil-spill contingency plans. The United States ratified this convention (Treaty Doc. 102-11); it took effect May 13, 1995, and mirrors requirements already adopted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Taking an expansive view of marine pollution was the UNEP's 1995 International Conference on Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources, held in Washington. It developed a November 1995 draft program of action incorporating watershed management and coastal zone management practices, as well as discharges from industry, agriculture, silvaculture, and many other inland sources of pollution. The United States has had similar programs in place for years under the Clean Water Act.

Compensating for Marine Pollution Damage

Another IMO activity involves establishing liability provisions and compensating for damages in the event of marine pollution incidents. For the most part IMO provisions have never been totally acceptable to the United States. The 101st Congress enacted domestic comprehensive oil pollution liability and compensation legislation in the 1990 Oil Pollution Act (P.L. 101-389) which establishes a liability scheme for oil-tanker owners and operators. In adopting this measure, congressional conferees dropped provisions to implement the two yet-to-be-ratified IMO conventions on liability and compensation, because they would technically pre-empt state laws and because liability limits are much lower than U.S. limits. However, the enacted U.S. legislation contains a nonbinding resolution that the United States participate in an international oil-spill agreement, provided it was as strict as U.S. law.

In November 1992, delegates to the two IMO conventions, the 1969 International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage and the 1971 International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, agreed to reduce the number of countries that must ratify protocols prior to their entry into force. Two protocols to the conventions, first adopted in 1984 and revised in 1992, would amend the conventions to increase shipowner liability and the level of compensation made to oil-pollution victims. The reduced ratification requirements permit adoption of these protocols and future changes to the conventions without U.S. participation. These entered into force May 30, 1995. While these substanti ally increase a shipowner's liability limit and the maximum amount of compensation, the geographic scope, and thus better global coverage. While the United States is not expected to pursue adoption of these improved conventions, the improvements offer better compensation coverage worldwide.

In the past few years, Congress has approved several international measures. In the 102nd Congress, the Senate gave its advice and consent to the ratification of several marine pollution agreements, including Annex III of MARPOL and maritime agreements concerning standards of watchkeeping and safety of life at sea. On May 24, 1991, the Senate agreed to a resolution of ratification of the 1986 Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (SPREP) and its two protocols for the prevention of pollution of the South Pacific Region by dumping, and on cooperation in combating pollution emergencies. The Convention is designed to protect the marine environment in the region from pollution from a wide range of sources, including land-based activities. The Convention and Protocols entered into force for the United States July 10, 1991. For the 105th Congress there are no immediate international marine pollution conventions on the congressional horizon.


28 Prepared by Martin R. Lee, Specialist in Environmental Policy, Environment arid Natural Resources Policy Division.

29 Oil Spill Intelligence Report. International Oil Spill Statistics: 1996. Arlington, MA: Cutter Information Corporation, 1997. p.5.

30 This report does not address IMO conventions seeking to make vessel traffic safer and prevent accidents which have the ancillary effects of preventing marine pollution, too. Among these are: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Seas (SOLAS), 1960 and 1974, and International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG). The IMO also has developed agreements on containers, use of satellites, training, traffic management, and salvage.

31 For updates on all convention-related activities, see IMO's website at: http://www.imo.org

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