Increased awareness of laws and regulations pertaining to oil spills will be required of engineers in the petroleum industry during the decade of the '70's. We have already seen a number of instances where operators have been cited and eventually fined for violation of one of the several statutes which cover accidental or deliberate release of oil or similar materials.

For the purpose of our discussion today, I will restrict my comments to applicable federal laws and regulations and will exclude any reference to state or local regulations. In order to understand where we are today, it seems appropriate to briefly review the historical development of antipollution or environmental legislation.


As early as 1899 the Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act, sometimes called the Refuse Act, which included the following:

It shall not be lawful to throw, discharge, or deposit, or cause, sufferor procure to be thrown, discharged, or deposited either from or out of anyship, barge, or other floating craft of any kind, or from the shore, wharf, manufacturing establishment, or mill of any kind, any refuse matter of any kind or description whatever other than that flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state into any navigable water of the United States, or into any tributary of any navigable water from which the same shall float or be washed into such navigable water: … whereby navigation shall or may be impeded or obstructed.

Clearly, the intent of the legislators who drafted this bill over 70 years ago was to prohibit the dumping of floating refuse which prohibit the dumping of floating refuse which could be a danger to marine navigation.

Interpretation by the courts over the years, however, has enhanced the usefulness of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 in controlling and abating pollution in our nation's rivers and streams. As recently as 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court stated: "The word 'refuse' includes all foreign substances and pollutants apart from those 'flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state' into the water course."

This broadening of the original language has permitted enforcement agencies to apply the 1899 law to current antipollution activities, especially in the area of oil spills.

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