Once-controversial spill bill passes House

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill to bring cruise ships, other large non-tanker vessels and the Alaska Railroad under the state's oil-spill response laws passed the House on Friday, less than year after lawmakers there drastically weakened a similar measure.

Last year's Senate Bill 273 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.

Barnes lost her re-election bid last year and on Friday, Rep. Pete Kott rose from Barnes' old seat at the back of the House chamber to advocate Senate Bill 16, the restored version.

''It protects Alaska's renewable resources and it keeps Alaska's waters the most pristine of any other state,'' said Kott, R-Eagle River.

Last year, the contingency planning provision was replaced by one mandating a task force of government and industry representatives. The task force produced a very similar bill for the current Legislature.

After months of meetings and a lengthy report recommending its passage, the proposal from the Task Force on Motorized Oil Transport, now Senate Bill 16, passed 32-2 Friday. The Senate gave its approval 17-1 in February. The measure now goes to Gov. Tony Knowles for signature.

The task force asked lawmakers not to upset a hard-won compromise by amending the bill, and it survived with only cosmetic changes.

''There was consensus among every member,'' Kott said of the task force. ''There was not one opposing view.''

What little opposition there was to the bill centered on the regulatory power given to the Department of Environmental Conservation, a favorite target of many Republican lawmakers.

Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, argued that the Coast Guard should have responsibility for regulating the large vessels. Majority Leader Jeannette James said she was supporting the bill with grave reservations.

''I still have a little twinging about this bill that there's something I don't know that I don't like,'' said James, R-North Pole.

But in the end, only Richard Foster, D-Nome, and Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, voted no. Kohring said the bill contributed to a bloated bureaucracy and placed yet another government restriction on private industry.

''More government's not the answer here,'' said Kohring, who searched in vain during the House Transportation Committee hearings for someone to oppose the bill.

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

That prompted then-Senate President Drue Pearce, the bill's sponsor, to accuse the cruise and shipping industries of trying to kill the bill.

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

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