Warren L. Dean and Laurie L. Crick

At the request of the United States Navy, the Marine Board of the National Research Council is examining the status and continuing viability of the intentional discharge of oil (jettisoning) as a means of saving vessels and cargoes during marine salvage operations. The legal standards that govern discharges of oil within waters over which the United States exercises jurisdiction have recently been revised. First, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) overhauled federal law concerning oil pollution and encouraged the states to adopt supplemental laws.1 Second, the International Convention on Salvage 1989 placed new emphasis on the salvor's duty to prevent or minimize damage to the environment. Together, these developments have changed the legal regime governing salvage-related discharges of oil in waters over which the United States exercises jurisdiction. This paper will first analyze the new regime's effects, intended and unintended, on salvage operations and will then explore means by which adverse effects might be avoided or minimized.2


Current Law

The term ''salvage'' is generally used to describe all services rendered to save property at sea. The admiralty definition of salvage is "a voluntary response to a maritime peril by other than the ship's own crew, and from which the ship or property could not have been saved without the effort of the salvor."3 The "salvage award" is "the compensation allowed to persons by whose assistance a ship or her cargo have been saved, in whole or in part, from impending peril on the sea, or in recovering such property from actual loss, as in case of shipwreck."4

The concept of maritime salvage encompasses three essential elements:

  1. A marine peril placing property, vessel and cargo, at risk of loss.

  2.  Salvage services voluntarily rendered.


Pub. L. No. 101-380, 104 Stat. 484 (Aug. 18, 1990), codified primarily at 33 U.S.C. §§2701-2719.


Unless specifically stated otherwise, for purposes of this paper "salvage-related discharges" include only jettisoning, which is the intentional discharge of oil for the purpose of saving the vessel and cargo, and unavoidable, incidental discharges from the imperiled vessel during salvage operations.


Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, Legal Committee, Coastal State Protection Against Major Maritime Disasters: A Secretariat Study of Certain Legal Aspects of Intervention, Notification, and Salvage in Respect to Incidents Like the Amoco Cadiz (Sept. 15, 1978).


The Blackwall v. Sancelito Water & Steam Tug Co., 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 1, 12 (1870).

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