Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


OLYMPIA - March 6, 2000 - Attorney General Christine Gregoire is calling for the Coast Guard to take action in the wake of today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidates much of the state’s oil spill prevention law.

The Court held that Washington rules concerning tanker crew training, English language proficiency, navigation watch and accident reporting are preempted by federal law. The Court allowed state regulation, but only where such regulation is directed at peculiarities of local waters. It remanded to the lower courts a review of Washington’s laws concerning operation during restricted visibility in Puget Sound, and other similar local requirements.

"The Court’s decision has tied the state’s hands from ensuring tankers will safely transit Washington waters and that there will be full and adequate protection for Puget Sound," said Gregoire.

Gregoire called the decision a "terrible blow to Washington’s Puget Sound protection efforts." She added, "We know better than those in Washington, D.C. how to protect this natural resource gem."

As a result of the decision, Gregoire called on the U. S. Coast Guard to strengthen its tanker regulations so they meet the "common sense, essential protections, and safety measures mandated by Washington law."

If the Coast Guard doesn’t take steps to adequately protect Puget Sound, Gregoire said Congress must act.

Gregoire said it is not enough just to have good regulations. The Coast Guard also has to have adequate staffing to enforce the regulations. "The stakes are too high to have strong regulations that exist only on the books and are not carried out on the water."

She added that the state is prepared now to carry out its regulations and we need to make sure the Coast Guard is equally prepared to ensure full compliance.

The case stems from a 1995 lawsuit filed by the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), the world’s largest independent oil tanker trade group. Intertanko, joined by the federal government argued that the oil spill prevention regulations adopted by the state Legislature in 1991 conflict with international agreements and are preempted by various federal laws.

U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour upheld the law in November of 1996, and Intertanko appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal government intervened in the case while it was pending in the Court of Appeals. In 1998, the Ninth Circuit upheld all but one small section of the law dealing with technology issues. In May of 1999 both Intertanko and the federal government filed petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Washington isn’t the only state affected by today’s ruling. Several other coastal states have adopted similar rules to protect their shorelines and wildlife. Twenty states filed "friend of the court" briefs supporting Washington in the Intertanko case.

To view the Court’s decision in this case, go to Cornell University’s website at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/supct.March.2000.html and look under United States v. Locke.