Contact Us for a Free Consultation (877) 781-1570

Oil Spill

When Does an Oil Spill Become a Federal Crime?

Oil spills are among the gravest environmental catastrophes. They wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, endanger wildlife, and threaten the livelihoods of local communities dependent on the affected bodies of water. 

Oil spills cause environmental damage, including the destruction of marine habitats, the death of marine life, and long-term ecological changes. Economically, oil spills can lead to significant losses for fisheries, tourism, and local businesses, alongside the monumental costs associated with cleanup efforts. 

When Does an Oil Spill Become a Federal Crime?
An oil spill can sometimes escalate from an environmental mishap to a federal crime.

33 U.S. Code 1321 Oil and hazardous substance liability says, “(2) Discharge posing a substantial threat to public health or welfare -  

(A) If a discharge, or a substantial threat of a discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility is of such a size or character as to be a substantial threat to the public health or welfare of the United States (including but not limited to fish, shellfish, wildlife, other natural resources, and the public and private beaches and shorelines), the President shall direct all Federal, State, and private actions to remove the discharge or to mitigate or prevent the threat of the discharge.

(B) In carrying out this paragraph, the President may, without regard to any other provision of law governing contracting procedures or employment of personnel by the Federal Government—

(i) remove or arrange for the removal of the discharge, or mitigate or prevent the substantial threat of the discharge; and

(ii) remove and, if necessary, destroy a vessel discharging or threatening to discharge by whatever means are available.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that the federal government has laws in place that not only regulate the pollution of waterways but also penalize acts of negligence. At what point does an oil spill escalate from an environmental mishap to a federal crime—and what are the consequences at that point?

What is the Legal Framework for Oil Spill Regulation?

Numerous laws and regulations have been established at both federal and international levels to mitigate the ecological and economic impacts of oil spills. 

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

These laws aim to prevent spills, ensure prompt and effective responses to incidents, and hold responsible parties accountable for the damage caused. Key among these regulations are the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), which provide the foundation for the United States' approach to preventing and responding to oil spills.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90)

In response to the Exxon Valdez spill, OPA 90 significantly expanded the federal government's ability to prevent and respond to oil spills. It established requirements for contingency planning, spill prevention, and liability for damages. Under OPA 90, responsible parties are liable for cleanup costs and damages from an oil spill.

The Clean Water Act (CWA)

The CWA is a comprehensive statute aimed at regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Under the CWA, it is unlawful to discharge oil or hazardous substances into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines in quantities that may harm public health or the environment.

What Categorizes an Oil Spill as Criminal?

Not every oil spill results in criminal charges. An oil spill becomes a federal crime involving willful negligence or the knowing violation of federal laws and regulations governing oil discharge. Key criteria include:

  • Intentional Discharge: Knowingly discharging oil into waters violates federal law.
  • Negligence: Acting with gross negligence or reckless disregard for the harmful consequences of the discharge.
  • Failure to Report: Failing to notify the appropriate federal authorities immediately upon knowledge of a spill.

What are Related Federal Laws?

33 U.S. Code Subchapter III, Standards and Enforcement, has several federal laws related to oil spills, such as the following: 

  • 33 U.S.C. 1311 - Effluent limitations,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1312 - Water quality-related effluent limitations,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1313 - Water quality standards and implementation plans,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1313a - Revised water quality standards,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1314 - Information and guidelines,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1314a - Wastewater technology clearinghouse,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1315 - State reports on water quality,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1316 - National standards of performance,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1317 - Toxic and pretreatment effluent standards,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1318 - Records and reports; inspections,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1319 - Enforcement,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1320 - International pollution abatement,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1321 - Oil and hazardous substance liability,
  • 33 U.S.C.  1321a - Prevention of small oil spills,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1321b - Improved coordination with tribal governments,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1321c - International efforts on enforcement,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1322 - Marine sanitation devices; discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1323 - Federal facilities pollution control,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1324 - Clean lakes,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1325 - National Study Commission,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1326 - Thermal discharges,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1328 - Aquaculture,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1329 - Nonpoint source management programs,
  • 33 U.S.C. 1330 - National estuary program.

What is the Investigation and Prosecution Process?

Federal investigations into oil spills are typically conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Coast Guard. These investigations aim to determine the spill's cause, assess the damage's extent, and identify the responsible parties. If evidence of criminal activity is found, the case may be referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

During the prosecution process, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused knowingly or negligently caused the spill and failed to adhere to federal laws and regulations. The defense, conversely, may argue a lack of intent, compliance with regulations, or other mitigating factors.

What are the Consequences of Criminal Conviction?

The consequences of being convicted of a federal crime related to an oil spill can be significant. Individuals and corporations can face penalties that include substantial fines, potentially amounting to millions of dollars, and, in some instances, imprisonment. 

Beyond these immediate penalties, the responsible parties are also liable for the costs associated with cleanup and environmental restoration, which can surpass the initial fines significantly. These penalties are separate from and independent of any civil damages that may be imposed (which can be in the millions of dollars on their own).

Under the OPA, criminal failure to report an oil spill in a timely manner can result in fines of up to $250,000 per individual and $500,000 per organization, as well as prison terms of up to 5 years. More serious environmental violations can trigger prison sentences as high as 15 years.

What are the Common Defenses?

In the face of criminal charges related to oil spills, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can employ numerous strategies to counter the accusations. Some common approaches include:

  • Lack of Intent: Demonstrating that the spill was accidental and not a result of willful negligence or intentional misconduct.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Providing evidence that all federal and state environmental regulations and standards were adhered to before and after the incident.
  • Adequate Prevention Measures: Showing that reasonable and industry-standard measures were in place to prevent such spills, thus negating claims of recklessness or gross negligence.
  • Immediate Response: This illustrates swift action taken to mitigate the spill's impact, including prompt reporting to authorities and initiating cleanup efforts, which can demonstrate responsibility and potentially mitigate penalties.
  • Faulty Equipment or Third-Party Error: Arguing that the spill resulted from equipment failure beyond the defendant's control or was caused by a third party, shifting liability away from the accused.
  • Act of God: Claiming the spill was caused by natural disasters or other uncontrollable events absolves the defendant of responsibility due to unforeseeable and unavoidable circumstances.

Contact our law firm for more information or a case evaluation. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

Related Content:

Contact Us Today

Eisner Gorin LLP is committed to answering your questions about Criminal Defense law issues in Los Angeles, California.

We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Make A Payment | LawPay