A LEGAL battle is brewing between owners of the 123,863 deadweight tonnes (dwt) tanker Jahre Spray, built in 1975, and a refinery operator over who is responsible for spilling 151,412 litres of crude oil into the Delaware River near Philadelphia in the United States late last month. Representatives of Jahre Shipping and Jahre Wallem have spurned a request from terminal operator Coastal Corp of Houston to post US$50 million in surety bonds to cover costs of cleaning up the most serious spill on the river since 1989. Jahre filed legal papers in a New Jersey federal court denying liability, demanding it be limited to the value of the vessel - estimated at $6 million - if the Norwegian owners are found at fault. The spill occurred when the 849-foot tanker was blown away from the dock during a sudden and intense wind storm said to have produced tornado-like conditions. Two fuel lines ruptured, spewing West African light crude and eventually fouling birds, pleasure boats and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania shorelines over a 17.7 kilometre stretch. But the Coast Guard is investigating whether winds could have pushed the tanker 75 feet from the dock if it was properly secured. The agency has not determined fault and said the investigation could take weeks. The case presents interesting legal issues, according to John Koster, a partner in the New York law firm Healy & Baillie, an expert on oil spills. Mr Koster said Jahre normally would have little hope of limiting liability to the vessel's value, given the language of the US Oil Pollution Act of 1990, if the company was deemed to be at fault. But because the Coast Guard designated Coastal as the responsible party for purposes of the clean-up, Jahre may be in a stronger position and could manage to limit liability determined at a later date, Mr Koster said, adding: 'This will be an interesting case to follow.' Coastal spokesman Steve Eames said the $50 million bond sought by his company reflected a worst-case scenario for the cleanup costs, as the actual cost had not yet been tallied. 'Coastal has serious questions about why the ship drifted away from the dock,' Mr Eames said, declining to elaborate. It is understood, however, that Coastal will argue all lines and on-shore cleats held, raising questions about whether winches on the vessel functioned properly. In court papers, meanwhile, Jahre claimed the vessel was 'properly manned, equipped and supplied'. Attempts to reach Jahre officials in Norway were unsuccessful, but Jim Lawrence, a spokesman for the firm in Connecticut, soft-pedalled the dispute between the two firms, saying Coastal had done a superb job in responding to the spill.