(CN) - The 1st Circuit has ruled against the U.S. Coast Guard in a fight with Massachusetts over how to regulate oil spill hazards from ships traveling in Buzzards Bay.
Buzzards Bay marks a 28-mile wedge between mainland Massachusetts to the northwest and Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands to the east. A canal connecting Buzzards Bay to the Cape Cod Bay of the Atlantic Ocean makes it an important shipping channel. Buzzards Bay is also a valuable natural resource and a "brilliant jewel in the diadem of Massachusetts waters," according to the federal appeals court ruling penned by Judge Bruce M. Selya.
A dispute with the Coast Guard arose when the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law shortly after a barge spilled nearly 100,000 gallons of oil into the inlet in 2003, contaminating the shoreline and ocean floor.
Noting that it had developed it own regulations, the Coast Guard claimed that the state law was preempted by federal authority. As opposed to the federal rules, the state regulations require tugboat escorts and onboard lookouts for ships carrying larger loads of oil.
Earlier in the case history, a federal judge enjoined the state law with an injunction, but the Boston-based federal appeals court shelved the order and called for further development.
By 2010, the trial court entered a declaratory judgment for the Coast Guard and entered a permanent injunction against the challenged portions of the state law.
Last week, a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit reversed, saying the Coast Guard employed a "creative interpretation" and went against its own longstanding processes in the developing the Buzzard Bay shipping regulations.
The Coast Guard wrongly applied a categorical exclusion to avoid conducting an environmental analysis, according to the 28-page ruling, as the regulation could clearly impact public health or safety.
Its rules also dealt with a clearly controversial issue, although the Coast Guard "shrug[ged] off this tidal wave of comments as mere political opposition," the judges found.
"The government must turn square corners when dealing with the public," Selya wrote, adding that it is required address the "not implausible fear" of environmental harm.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.