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United States v. Locke

Citation: 30 ELR 20438
No. No. 98-1701, 120 S. Ct. 1135/(U.S., 03/06/2000)

The Court holds that at least four of Washington State's regulations governing oil tanker operations and design are preempted by the Port and Waterway Safety Act (PWSA). The Court first holds that the preemptive effect of the PWSA and regulations promulgated under it are not affected by the Oil Pollution Act (OPA). In Ray v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 435 U.S. 151, 8 ELR 20255 (1978), the Court held that the PWSA preempted Washington's pilotage requirement, limitation on tanker size, and tanker design and construction rules. In this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals improperly held that the OPA's savings clauses narrowed Ray's preemptive effect and allowed states to regulate tankers. However, the court of appeals placed more weight on the savings clauses than those provisions can bear, either from a textual standpoint or from a consideration of the whole federal regulatory scheme of which the OPA is but a part. The evident purpose of the savings clauses is to preserve state laws that, rather than imposing substantive regulation of a vessel's primary conduct, establish liability rules and financial requirements relating to oil spills. The text of the statute indicates no intent to allow states to impose wide-ranging regulation of the at-sea operation of tankers.

The Court next holds that PWSA Title II preempts Washington State's regulations regarding general navigation watch procedures, English language skills, training, and casualty reporting. Under Ray, PWSA Title I preserved state authority to regulate the peculiarities of local waters, such as depth and narrowness, if there is no conflict with federal regulatory determinations. But under Ray's interpretation of PWSA Title II, only the federal government may regulate the design, construction, alteration, repair, maintenance, operation, equipping, personnel qualification, and manning of tankers. The Court recognizes that the existence of some overlapping coverage between the two titles of the PWSA may make it difficult to determine whether a preemption question is controlled by conflict preemption principles, applicable generally to Title I, or by field preemption principles, applicable generally to Title II. However, the Court holds that four of Washington's tanker regulations are preempted by the field preemption rule surrounding Title II. The Court remanded the remaining state regulations to determine if they are preempted under PWSA Title I or Title II.

Counsel for Petitioner
Noelle Straub
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Counsel for Respondent
William B. Collins, Senior Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
1125 Washington St. SE, Olympia WA 98504
(360) 753-6200/6245