Federal Court Gets Off the Bench to Protect New England Coastal Waters

Peter Shelley | @peashell47

May 17th was a good day for fish and Massachusetts fishermen. In a harsh but eloquent opinion issued on Tuesday, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals told the U.S. Coast Guard in no uncertain terms that it had failed to meet its responsibilities to fully evaluate the potential environmental impacts of its decision to overrule protections that Massachusetts put in place to protect Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay and the islands from further oil spills from coastal oil transport.

At issue was a new set of state rules, adopted by the Massachusetts legislature after the disastrous Bouchard oil barge spill in 2003 on a rock outcropping in Buzzards Bay. The state rules imposed mandatory tug escorts for oil barges, barge manning, and crew task requirements that were stricter than existing federal rules. The Coast Guard didn’t like being second-guessed on safety issues and issued rules that overruled the Massachusetts effort with more lax and oil transport-friendly requirements. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Coalition for Buzzards Bay challenged that action in federal district court and Conservation Law Foundation also briefed the case.

On appeal from an unfavorable lower court opinion, the federal Court of Appeals agreed with Massachusetts, chastising the lower court that it had misread legal precedent. The Court of Appeals held that the Coast Guard had done no environmental review at all despite the “tidal wave” of public concern about the consequences of the weaker rules and increased risks of more oil spills. Instead of a “hard look” at those risks, the Court found that the Coast Guard had, at best, given them a “brief glance.” In trying to avoid confronting the safety issues, the Appeals Court said, the Coast Guard “rip[ped] out the heart” of its own rules.

A bird covered in oil as a result of the Bouchard oil barge spill (Photo: MA EOEEA)

Unfortunately, the fight to protect Cape Cod, Buzzards Bay, and the Islands is not over, and further vigilance will be critical. The case will now be sent back to the Coast Guard to complete the necessary environmental review. We can only hope that they will be more responsive this time around. Coastal oil transport is no doubt critical to our regional economy but it must be done with maximum protections. Oil economic interests should not trump coastal safety issues. The future of our fisheries depends on clean coastal waters as does the health of all marine life, from fish to fowl to mammals.

A great debt is owed to the Massachusetts legislature for acting so forcefully on this issue and to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and the Coalition for Buzzards Bay for their intelligent and passionate defense of these state interests. May 17, 2011 was a good day for our oceans.

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