What is the 'Oil Pollution Act Of 1990'

The U.S. Congress enacted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) as an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. It is one of the most wide-reaching and critical pieces of environmental legislation ever passed.

BREAKING DOWN 'Oil Pollution Act Of 1990'

The Oil Pollution Act was designed to establish a comprehensive federal framework which would prevent future spills and develop cleanup procedures in the case of a spill-related emergency. Primary enforcement and administration of the Act are by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Before passage of the OPA, federal pollution legislation had been an ineffective web of weak enforcement and insufficient liability for polluters. The OPA sought to remedy this problem by establishing stricter standards for the maritime transportation of oil:

  • New requirements for constructions of vessels and training of personnel
  • Contingency planning requirements
  • Enhanced federal response capability
  • Broadened enforcement authority
  • Increased penalties for polluters
  • Further research and development programs for cleanup and storage technology
  • Increasing potential liabilities
  • Increased financial responsibility requirements

Liability Under the OPA

A primary emphasis of the OPA is the liability, financial and otherwise, which the Act imposes on any party found to be responsible for a destructive oil spill. Any firm identified as a responsible party is subject to virtually unlimited cleanup costs. However, any claimant seeking reimbursement for cleanup costs must first request it directly from the guilty party. If the responsible party refuses, a claimant can then take legal action against the firm or seek it directly from a federally-established Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. 

Establishment of the Liability Trust Fund came in 1986, before the Valdez incident. It was established to finance clean-up efforts and damage assessments, and to cover unmet private liability on the part of a responsible party. Funding for the Trust is by a tax, on both domestic production and imports, of petroleum products. 

Since the enactment of the OPA, oil spills have declined in frequency and severity across the United States. Credit for this decline goes to the Act’s requirement of improved storage and transportation technologies. Also, the looming threat of financial consequences for any guilty party is significant. 
The OPA has been the target of numerous legal challenges from the oil industry since its passage but has mostly survived intact. It played an essential role in the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and has been under a new set of strains as the U.S. has become a net exporter of oil in recent years.
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