Spill cleanups win immunity in Assembly

April 05, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- What if they had an oil spill and no one showed up? That's the fear that prompted the General Assembly yesterday to pass Senate Bill 199, which would give legal immunity to companies that unintentionally cause damage while helping clean up oil spills they do not cause.

The House of Delegates voted 105-26 for the bill, which now goes to the governor for his expected signature.

The legislation had its origins in a mock oil spill cleanup conducted last summer with the help of Marine Spill Response Corp., a national group organized in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Poorly organized responders in that spill were blamed with exacerbating the damage.

At the mock cleanup, a Virginia company said it would not help out in the event of a real spill because Maryland does not protect responders from lawsuits as the federal government and other states do.

"If we have a spill and we don't have responders, we'll have a major, major catastrophe," argued Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Kent, the chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Opponents warned that the law would encourage oil companies to use their own affiliates or hire profit-seeking companies to respond to spills, secure in the knowledge that any mistakes they make will go unpunished.

But the House passed the bill, partly on the assurance that immunity will not be granted to responders who cause damage through gross negligence or willful misconduct.

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