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Recent developments in the East China Sea underscore a balancing test between the need for stronger government regulation of maritime matters versus the need to not infringe on government autonomy. The Iranian oil tanker Sanchi had a spill due to unknown circumstances in international waters in the East China Sea and is causing an environmental disaster. The ship was carrying 136,000 tons of light crude across those waters, and the ship is now sinking. The fate of the 30 crew members aboard the ship is unknown, with the likelihood that they did not survive.

The wreckage of the ship is still leaking and oil continues to spill into the water. Experts estimate the size of the oil spill as the equivalent of the size of Paris. In context, the spill is four times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill from the 1980s. The Exxon Valdez spill released heavy crude into the Artic Ocean; the Sanchi is releasing light crude, which has never been released into the water.

Light crude oil is more soluble that heavy crude, which means that it can be more easily absorbed in the water. As such, it would be harder to clean up. Some experts believe that spilled oil will arrive in Japan within the next month and will be in the Tokyo area within two months. There are also concerns that the spill will cause significant damage to the fishing industry in the region and severely damage the ecosystem.

These facts raise questions about who is responsible and how the responsible party will be held accountable.


While the facts of this case are unclear, issues may arise in respect to compelling the responsible part to clean up the spill. Under U.S. law, there are enforcement measures that compel a party to clean up a spill and punish that party for its negligence. The primary law that deals with oil spills is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, better known as OPA 90. OPA 90 provides a list of requirements for dealing with oil spills and slaps offenders with hefty fines.

Internationally, though, compelling clean up and imposing fines is not simple. Over the last few decades, the world has made strides in respect of upgrading ship safety to prophylactically reduce the chances of oil spills by tightening regulations. The United Nations and other world bodies drafted various legislation and called on sovereign nations to sign treaties that upgrade ship safety. Many nations dramatically upgraded their safety regulations, which may be why we do not see even more oil spills.

Nonetheless, accidents happen. When they happen, enforcement against the responsible party can be difficult. Ships sail under certain flags and the flagged country should be responsible for enforcement. When the flagged country does not have adequate rules for enforcement, how can a party be held responsible?

At the same time, regulation and enforcement in international waters may be incongruess with automnomy, and it is imperative that countries keep their autonomy.

Involved in the maritime business? Partner with the Kolodny law firm, experienced maritime lawyers.

(image courtesy of Max Okhrimenko)

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