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WASHINGTON - Congress was told Wednesday that the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, written in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, is working internationally to make tankers safer.
Coast Guard Commandant James Loy said the number of major spills has dropped by two-thirds since the law was passed.
But "now is not the time to relax," Loy told a hearing before two panels of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "It's the time to build from strength to strength."
Thursday's hearing was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Alaska oil spill, the worst in the country's history. The oil pollution act approved a year later toughened liability standards for shippers, required replacement of the aging tanker fleet with safer double-hull ships, and established a $1 billion liability fund to pay for cleanup costs.
"The good news is that it's working," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., of the act. "The nation spills less oil than it used to, even though it uses more oil than it used to. Something good did in fact result from the spill."
Bob Malone, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline and oversees tanker traffic in Prince William Sound, testified that the company now operates one of the safest oil transportation systems in the world.
"I'm not here to ask for any changes in the Oil Pollution Act," Malone said. "I'm here to say it's been a good law."
But some problems with the act were highlighted.
Thomas Moore, president of Chevron Shipping Co., said the act's criminal liability provisions were so strict that oil companies would try to distance themselves from tanker operations.
Environmentalists said they are concerned that tanker companies are trying to get out from under provisions requiring that all tankers be doubled-hulled by 2015. The transportation committee is planning a separate hearing on that issue.
Loy also said that the Clinton administration is seeking to increase the oil spill liability fund to $5 billion because of concern that there is not enough money in it now to respond to a giant spill.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, a senior Republican on the committee and chairman of the House Resources Committee, said that if the liability fund is increased, he will insist that the money is segregated in the federal treasury.
"We are not going to use it to balance the budget," he said.
* Reporter David Whitney can be reached at email@example.com