Once-controversial spill bill passes state Senate without debate

PHOTO/Courtesy Chris Kiana, Sr.
JUNEAU -- With no debate, the Senate on Feb. 22 passed a restored version of one of last year’s most contested bills -- a proposal to bring cruise ships and other large nontanker vessels under the state’s oil response laws.

Last year, a similar bill sponsored by then-Senate President Drue Pearce passed only after a power play by then-Rep. Ramona Barnes, an Anchorage Republican, forced the removal of its key provision -- that ships and the Alaska Railroad maintain contingency plans to clean up 15 percent of their oil-carrying capacity within 48 hours of a spill.

The provision was replaced by a task force of government and industry representatives that produced a very similar bill for the current Legislature. The bill that passed last year still required owners to prove they could take financial responsibility for cleaning up a spill.

After months of meetings and a lengthy report recommending its passage, the proposal by the Task Force on Motorized Oil Transport passed 17-1 without a word of debate. The task force asked lawmakers not to upset a hard-won compromise by amending the bill, and the bill has so far survived with only cosmetic changes.

"I don’t anticipate any problems with anything in the bill," said Pearce, an Anchorage Republican.

Last year’s bill also passed the Senate easily but ran aground in the House, where Barnes held it in her committee over concerns that the cost of contingency plans would drive up shipping costs for Alaska fish, timber and minerals. That prompted Pearce to accuse the cruise and shipping industries of trying to kill the bill.

The bill covers only ships of more than 400 gross tons, which includes cruise ships, state ferries, freighters and large fishing vessels.

Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, was the only dissenting vote in the Senate.

Taylor said he supports the idea of the bill but worries it might hurt the owners of the tugs and barges that ply the waters of his Southeast district, hauling everything from potatoes to pile-drivers.

"It’s an integral part of our economy. I just want to make absolutely sure we’re not going to wind up weighing down a bunch of small business people," Taylor said.

The bill now moves to the House, where a companion measure already is pending in the Finance Committee.

03/03/2001 - 8:00pm