Legislation creating the first coordinated, national system for responding to oil spills and compensating their victims was approved by Congress and sent to the White House for President Bush's signature.
The bill is expected to be signed into law in September.
Passage of the measure comes 16 months after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of oil in the worst such disaster in U.S. history.
Exxon Corp. has taken full responsibility for that accident, which the National Transportation Safety Board ruled this week was probably caused by the vessel's drunken captain turning over the bridge to an inexperienced, exhausted subordinate.
The chief dispute was over the right of states to enforce tougher laws than the federal government's. That issue was resolved in favor of the states a victory for Alaska, which will now be able to hold spillers fully liable for cleanup costs regardless of the cause.
Under the new federal legislation, any spiller guilty of gross negligence must pay all the costs of cleanup and compensation.
But even if a spill were unavoidable because of weather conditions or other factors beyond the tanker owner's control, company liability would still be increased tenfold.
If Exxon had not assumed full responsibility for its spill, existing law would have limited its liability to no more than $14 million in damages. The new legislation would increase its liability to $114 million.
Costs exceeding that figure would be paid from a new $1 billion national oilspill fund, paid for by a 5centsabarrel tax.
The legislation also requires the nation's tanker fleet be replaced with doublehulled vessels by the year 2015.
The measure also includes a requirement for a navigation light on Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground, and for better radar coverage of the Sound.
The legislation has special provisions for oil transport from Alaska. Among those, pilots familiar with the waterway and who are licensed by the state and the federal government must be on board any tanker south of Bligh Reef.
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