Constitutional Law - First Circuit Vacates Preemption Finding Relating to Three Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act Provisions

By Man, Pablo Javier | Suffolk University Law Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Constitutional Law - First Circuit Vacates Preemption Finding Relating to Three Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act Provisions


Man, Pablo Javier, Suffolk University Law Review


Constitutional Law--First Circuit Vacates Preemption Finding Relating to Three Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act Provisions--United States v. Massachusetts, 493 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2007)

Federalism is "[t]he legal relationship and distribution of power between the national and regional governments...." (1) When state and federal laws conflict, the court will conduct a preemption analysis to determine whether an injunction of the state law is in order. (2) In United States v. Massachusetts, (3) the First Circuit considered whether the federal Port and Waterways Safety Act (PWSA) preempted the Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act (MOSPA). (4) After the district court dismissed the action on the pleadings, the First Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that further analysis was necessary. (5)

Buzzards Bay (the Bay), the driving force behind MOSPA, lies off the coast of Massachusetts near Cape Cod and is one of five Estuaries of National Significance. (6) Oil spills have historically threatened the Bay because of its treacherous areas for navigation. (7) The most recent threat involved the Bouchard Transportation Co. Barge #120 (Bouchard grounding), whose cargo tank ruptured in April 2003, spilling approximately 98,000 gallons of oil near the Bay. (8) The incident impacted an estimated fifty-three miles of shoreline and elicited a legislative response in the form of MOSPA. (9)

Attempting to prevent future incidents like the Bouchard's grounding, Massachusetts passed MOSPA, "An Act Relative to Oil Spill Prevention and Response in Buzzards Bay and Other Harbors and Bays of the Commonwealth." (10) Subsequently, the United States, the American Waterways Operators International Association of Independent Tank Owners, Bimco, and Chamber of Shipping of America brought suit arguing to enjoin key MOSPA provisions. (11) The plaintiffs moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). (12) The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted a permanent injunction on all seven provisions, finding that PWSA preempted the Massachusetts statute. (13)

Massachusetts challenged the district court's decision as to three of the seven enjoined provisions: sections 4, 6, and 50C. (14) Section 4 enhanced the manning requirements for tank barges and tow vessels in Buzzards Bay. (15) Section 6 required a tug escort in special interest waters. (16) Finally, section 50C compelled some vessels to seek a financial assurance certificate. (17) The First Circuit reasoned that a court could not enjoin the appealed provisions without evidence and therefore vacated and remanded the judgment. (18)

Federal maritime trade regulation dates back to the founding of the United States. (19) Federal regulation of dangerous cargo, however, did not begin until Congress passed the Tank Vessel Act of 1936. (20) After the Torrey Canyon oil spill off the coast of England in 1967, Congress passed the Ports and Waterways Safety Act of 1972 to increase environmental protection. (21) In 1978, the Port Tanker Safety Act (PTSA) modified both the Tank Vessel Act and the PWSA by requiring the Secretary of Transportation to regulate tank vessels in various ways. (22) After the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, Congress took further measures to prevent spills by passing the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). (23) Despite steadily increasing federal regulation in the field of oil spills and tanker safety, several states, including Massachusetts, have passed their own more stringent regulations. (24)

Federal regulations can preempt state regulations expressly or implicitly. (25) When Congress takes a particular action, stricter state regulations are not necessarily helpful. (26) State oil spill regulations have generated some discussion and litigation between pro-environmental and pro-maritime interests. (27) Thus, two groups with distinct interests underlie the litigation: one that favors increased environmental protection and one that favors the uniform standards of federal regulation.

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