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Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA)


On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled over 11 million gallons of Alaskan crude into the water of Prince William Sound. There were many lessons learned the aftermath of the Valdez oil spill. Two of the most obvious were:

  • The United States lacked adequate resources, particularly Federal funds, to respond to spills, and
  • The scope of damages compensable under federal law to those impacted by a spill was fairly narrow.

Although the environmental damage and massive cleanup efforts were the most visible effects of this casualty, one of the most important outcomes was the enactment of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which addressed both these deficiencies.

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OPA Overview

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2701-2761) amended the Clean Water Act and addressed the wide range of problems associated with preventing, responding to, and paying for oil pollution incidents in navigable waters of the United States. It created a comprehensive prevention, response, liability, and compensation regime to deal with vessel- and facility-caused oil pollution to U.S. navigable waters. OPA greatly increased federal oversight of maritime oil transportation, while providing greater environmental safeguards by:

  • Setting new requirements for vessel construction and crew licensing and manning,
  • Mandating contingency planning,
  • Enhancing federal response capability,
  • Broadening enforcement authority,
  • Increasing penalties,
  • Creating new research and development programs,
  • Increasing potential liabilities, and
  • Significantly broadening financial responsibility requirements.

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Title I of OPA

Title I of OPA established new and higher liability limits for oil spills, with commensurate changes to financial responsibility requirements. It substantially broadened the scope of damages, including natural resource damages (NRDs), for which polluters are liable. It also authorized the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) up to $1 billion to pay for expeditious oil removal and uncompensated damagesup to $1 billion per incident. The Delaware River Protection Act of 2006, title VI of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, increased the limits of liability.

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NPFC Created to Implement OPA, Title I

OSLTF administration was delegated to the U.S. Coast Guard by Executive Order; and on February 20, 1991, the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) was commissioned to:

  • Implement certain provisions of OPA, Title I;
  • Administer the OSLTF;
  • Ensure funding for federal response; and
  • Recover costs from liable parties.

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Last Modified 7/25/2016