Coast Guard Authorization Act heads to White House

Legislation relieves owners, operators of vessels under 75 feet of incidental discharge regulations

The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which passed the U.S. Senate earlier this month, was approved by unanimous consent in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 27, and now goes to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign it by year’s end.

The bill, which is identical to one passed by the Senate on Nov. 14, includes the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, which provides a permanent exemption for commercial vessels, including fishing vessels, under 75 feet from the need to obtain permits though the Environmental Protection Agency for ballast water and other incidental discharges.

Also included in the legislative package is the reauthorization of the Hydrographic Services Improvement Act, to improve hydrographic surveying, especially of the Arctic, and a waiver to protect shipyard jobs at Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes, Wash. The Hydrographic Services Improvement Act also facilitates construction of a homeport for the NOAA research vessel Fairweather in Ketchikan.

The bicameral agreement, co-authored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was also co-sponsored in the Senate by Senators John Thune R-SD, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

The bill authorizes increased funding to support the U.S. Coast Guard through 2019, including an amendment sponsored by Sullivan and Sen, Maria Cantwell, D-WA. The bill also requires the Coast Guard to deliver a plan to extend the life of the icebreaker Polar Star, authorizes funding to execute the plan to extend the life of the Polar Star through the end of 2025, authorizes the Coast Guard to use multi-year contracts to begin procurement of three new National Security Cutters.

“The focus of this legislation is to improve how the Coast Guard operates nationwide and in Alaska this is especially important for Arctic operations and maritime commerce in our region,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who voted for the bill.

Passage of the legislation also drew kudos from Seafood Harvesters of America, who said the bill provides for the EPA to continue critical scientific research and maintains strict environmental protections for sea waters, while freeing up its members “from unwarranted and unreasonable regulations.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has taken issue with the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center, called VIDA “a significant blow to the Clean Water Act’s ability to protect rivers, estuaries and lakes from harmful invasive species.

“The Coast Guard has never upheld its obligation to fight the spread of aquatic species in ballast water,” he said. “This new law makes matters worse by allowing them to shirk that responsibility for years or decades to come.”

But Washington state’s Cantwell said that the bill “puts existing West Coast ballast water management practices into law, such as strong state vessel inspection and enforcement, to help protect Washington waters from invasive species like quagga mussels.”

The legislation includes many provisions important to the Coast Guard, the environment and the shipbuilding communities and is a truly bipartisan effort to find solutions, she said.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.