Once-controversial spill bill sails through first committee

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A restored version of one of last year's most contested bills -- a proposal to bring cruise ships and other large non-tanker vessels under the state's oil response laws -- sailed out of its first committee Monday.

Last year, a similar bill sponsored by then-Senate President Drue Pearce passed only after a power play by then-Rep. Ramona Barnes, R-Anchorage, forced the removal of its key provision -- that ships and the Alaska Railroad maintain contingency plans to clean up 15 percent of their oil-carrying capacity within 48 hours of a spill.

The provision was replaced by a task force of government and industry representatives that produced a very similar bill for the current Legislature. The bill passed last year still required owners to prove they could take financial responsibility for cleaning up a spill.

''It's made the first hurdle,'' Pearce, R-Anchorage, said Monday after the new bill, Senate Bill 16, passed the Senate Resources Committee without an objection.

After months of meetings and a lengthy report recommending its passage, the Task Force on Motorized Oil Transport's proposal looks destined for a smoother ride than its predecessor. The task force asked lawmakers not to upset a hard-won compromise by amending the bill, and at least the first committee honored that request.

''The consensus in and of itself is so striking in contrast to the dissent from last year,'' Pearce said. ''Opposition last year was being driven by the industry folks who were going to be covered by the bill. Early on some of them believed that they could kill the bill and make it go away.''

Last year's bill passed the Senate easily but ran aground in the House, where Barnes held it in her committee over concerns that the cost of contingency plans would drive up shipping costs for Alaska fish, timber and minerals.

That prompted Pearce to accuse the cruise and shipping industries of trying to kill the bill.

Barnes, a veteran lawmaker known for her combative style and tactics, lost her seat in the November election to Democrat Harry Crawford.

The bill covers only ships of more than 400 gross tons, which includes cruise ships, state ferries, freighters and large fishing vessels.

Bringing the ships and the railroad under the oil spill safety net will cost state agencies about $330,000 in 2003, according to fiscal notes prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Alaska Marine Highway. Most of the money will pay for DEC's review of contingency plans, while $29,000 will cover the ferry system's cost for complying with the bill.

The costs are expected to decline slightly in future years once the program is fully established.

Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, was the only dissenting voice on the Resources Committee, although he did not object to the bill moving on to the Finance Committee.

''We're probably looking at something like $3-$4 dollars a gallon here,'' Taylor said, comparing the cost of administering the program to the state's current costs for cleaning up spills.

Pearce responded by citing the Kuroshima, a Japanese freighter that ran aground near Dutch Harbor in 1997, spilling 39,000 gallons of bunker fuel.

''We spent millions on that,'' Pearce said. The state has also spent millions on spills from Alaska Railroad cars in recent years.

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