State legislation proposed to lift cap on damages from oil spills

by Jordan Green

A bill proposed by NC Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and three other Democratic lawmakers that would remove the cap on damages on oil spills and other hazardous substance cleanup from discharges such as the BP catastrophe in the Gulf Coast is headed to the House Judiciary I Committee following a vote by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee last week.

Under current state law, the total recovery for damage to public resources and cleanup costs from an oil discharge is linked to the federal liability cap, which is $75 million.

“I would just postulate that $75 million wouldn’t cover damages to one-third of one county on our coast in terms of if what happened in the gulf happens here,” Harrison told reporters after the committee vote. “It’s just killed the fishing industry and the tourism industry, and we don’t know if that’s going to last a lifetime or what, so it’s just pretty horrific to the Gulf.”

Harrison rejected the idea of raising the cap as an alternative to removing it altogether.

“Philosophically, if someone destroys our natural resources I don’t know why there should be any limit on recovery for our natural resources,” she said. “Philosophically, I’m opposed to a limit just because I couldn’t know what it’s going to cost us to recover from a gulf-type spill. We’ll lose our fishing industry; we may lose it for generations. We’ll lose tourism. I understand the Exxon Valdez 21 years later the marshes are still unproductive. They haven’t recovered any kind of herring fisheries. They’re still finding oil on their beaches, so I don’t know how you account for all those losses.”

During the hearing, an image with the heading “What if it happened here?” was projected on the wall showing the North Carolina coastline, a site of previous oil exploration leases and a superimposed image of the gulf oil spill footprint.

During the hearing, some lawmakers suggested that industry representatives had been caught off guard by legislation. Afterwards, Harrison responded to a question from a reporter about whether industry lobbyists had a “mechanism” to alert them that the legislation had been proposed.

“Yeah, the bill was filed,” she said. Rep. Pryor Gibson (D-Anson, Union) said he opposes the legislation, which he described as “too much, too fast” because he believes it would discourage offshore exploration. He predicted, “Obviously, this bill is going to pass. It’s up there with mom and apple pie.”

Representatives of environmental organizations such as Environment North Carolina, the NC Sierra Club, the NC Wildlife Federation and the NC Environmental Defense Fund urged passage of the legislation during a hearing.

“North Carolina beaches are a favorite destination, not just for people in North Carolina but for people across the country,” said Margaret Hartzell of Environment North Carolina. “The coast also drives the state’s economy. The Outer Banks alone draws more than 7 million visitors each year.”

The bill also requires the NC Department of Crime Control and Public Safety to update the state’s Oil Spill Contingency Plan “to ensure the state’s preparedness in the event the oil leaking from the British Petroleum Deep Water Horizon offshore drilling rig is swept by currents or other mechanisms to the North Carolina coast or the state’s waters.”

Additionally, the bill calls for an extensive review of oil drilling activities off the coast of North Carolina by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Coastal Resources Commission. Areas of review would include worst-case discharge scenarios, estimates of the volume of possible spills, proposed spill responses, impacts to other area industries, assessed impacts on coastal resources and descriptions of various dispersant that might be used and their relative toxicities.