Thursday, April 23, 2009

Focus On: Hormuz Oil Spill

In the early morning of March 20, 2009, two U.S. Navy vessels, the USS New Orleans (an amphibious assault ship) and the USS Hartford (a nuclear powered submarine), collided in a highly unusual incident in the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran. Both ships were damaged, and 15 soldiers were injured, though none of them seriously.

Neither ship was disabled by the damage sustained and the nuclear reactor aboard the Hartford remained uncompromised. The USS New Orleans, however, ruptured its fuel tanks and spilled 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Arabian Gulf.

While diesel fuel was visible from the surface shortly after the accident, an aerial search conducted by the U.S. Navy that day found that the spill had disappeared from view. A Navy spokesman suggested that due to its low density, the fuel had likely dissipated.

Others sources speculated that the spill could have taken a trajectory toward Musandam, a popular resort destination in Oman considered by some to be an ecotourism treasure.

At this point in time, there have been no reports of environmental damage in the area around Musandam. Nevertheless, the incident raises the question: who may be held liable for environmental or ecological damage resulting from accidents at sea?

This question is a particularly relevant one for countries and companies with assets located along busy waterways.

Liability of Military Ships
The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that military ships are generally immune from all liabilities.

There are, however, exceptions to immunity for certain events and activities in territorial seas. Specifically excluded from immunity is loss or damage resulting from non-compliance with the laws or regulations of a coastal state concerning passage through the territorial sea or any act of willful and serious pollution contrary to the convention.

These exceptions to immunity, however, are applicable only in territorial seas, not in straits used for international navigation, such as the Strait of Hormuz. Significantly, the U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS, meaning that these exceptions could not be applied to attach liability to a U.S. military vessel.

Liability of Commercial Vessels
The liability of commercial vessels is an even more complex matter, subject to international conventions and a wide range of domestic laws, both of the flag nation of the commercial vessel and of any affected nation. Moreover, countries whose shores have suffered pollution have often taken matters into their own hands by bringing civil suits and/or criminal charges locally and abroad.