Who is an “operator” under OPA 1990? Dumb barges and dumb tug.
In January 2013, a tugboat owned by Nature’s Way was moving two oil-carrying barges owned by Third Coast Towing down the Mississippi River. The barges were “dumb” barges lacking the ability for self-propulsion or navigation. The barges collided with a bridge, resulting in one of the barges discharging over 7,000 gallons of oil into the Mississippi. Nature’s Way and its insurer, and Third Coast Towing and its insurer were all designated by the Coast Guard as “responsible parties” under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act (‘OPA’). Nature’s Way subsequently spent over $2.99 million on the clean-up, and various governmental entities spent over an additional $792,000. In May 2015, Nature’s Way submitted a claim to the National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) seeking reimbursement of over $2.13 million on the grounds that its liability should be limited by the tonnage of the tugboat and not the tonnage of the barges and also claiming relief from any obligation to reimburse the government for the additional $792,000-plus. Those claims were denied by the NPFC based upon its determination that Nature’s Way was an “operator” of the oil-discharging barge at the time of the collision.
The District Court held that Nature’s Way was an “operator” and its decision has been upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in US v Nature’s Way 21 Sept 2018. Case: 17-60698. OPA does not define the term “operator” but the Supreme Court in United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51, 66 (1998) analysed the definition of the term in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), as follows:
In a mechanical sense, to “operate” ordinarily means “[t]o control the functioning of; run: operate a sewing machine.” American Heritage Dictionary 1268 (3d ed. 1992); see also Webster’s New International Dictionary 1707 (2d ed. 1958) (“to work; as, to operate a machine”). And in the organizational sense more obviously intended by CERCLA, the word ordinarily means “[t]o conduct the affairs of; manage: operate a business.”
Applying that analysis, the ordinary and natural meaning of an “operator” of a vessel under the OPA would include someone who directs, manages, or conducts the affairs of the vessel, and would thereby include the act of piloting or moving the vessel. Nature’s Way undisputedly had exclusive navigational control over the barge at the time of the collision, and, as such, it was a party whose direction (or lack thereof) caused the barge to collide with the bridge. It was, therefore, “operating” the barge at the time of the collision based on the ordinary and natural meaning of the term.
The Fifth Circuit rejected Nature’s Way’s argument that its conduct in moving the barge was more akin to the “mere mechanical activation of pumps,” and it could not be deemed to have been “operating” the barge because it was merely moving the barge as per Third Coast’s directions, and it did not exercise control over its environmental affairs or inspections.
Nature’s Way directed precisely the activity that caused the pollution—it literally was the party that crashed the barge into the bridge. It was clearly “operating” the barge at the time of the collision and therefore constituted a “responsible party” under OPA.