Federal vs. state: Preemption in maritime law

Our legal system sometimes faces situations where U.S. federal law butts heads with state law. It happens often with marine environmental regulations. Our founding fathers must have anticipated this because Article VI of the Constitution states, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States … shall be the supreme law of the land.”

The concept is known as preemption, and was recently demonstrated in July when a U.S. District Court stopped Massachusetts from implementing parts of its Oil Spill Prevention Act.

Had the state of Massachusetts prevailed, vessel owners and crews of tank vessels would have faced stricter regulations when operating in state waters. These include banning vessels with certain design characteristics from docking, loading or unloading in Massachusetts waters (OPA ’90 double-hull requirements), new manning and navigation watch requirements, requiring the use of a Massachusetts pilot in certain waters, and mandating vessel routes and tug escorts.

A similar scenario unfolded in 2000, following a challenge of Washington state’s oil spill prevention laws.

As in the Massachusetts case, the U.S. Supreme Court (United States v. Locke) decided that Washington’s regulations were unenforceable in the face of preemptive federal statutes. The original 1991 Washington state oil spill regulations came in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. The Massachusetts regulations came soon after the 2003 oil spill on Buzzard’s Bay.

Federal and state marine environmental law may clash again in a similar setting. In 2005, the California Air Resources Board passed regulations requiring oceangoing vessels to use lighter diesel fuels when operating auxiliary engines in port or within 24 miles of the California coastline. The new measures will impact domestic and foreign cargo and cruise ships when they take effect on Jan. 1.

California legislators argue that harmful emissions from heavy diesel fuels have created a major health hazard. Opponents of the stricter law argue that federal law already establishes national air standards and that 24 miles is beyond the state’s three-mile territorial waters. When the time comes for the California regulations to take effect, the Supreme Court may again be summoned to rule on whether it is enforceable.

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