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Washington Watch

Pamela Glass Congress drops the ball on vessel discharge


December 20, 2012

You win some, and you lose some.

While the barge industry was high-fiving it over winning a victory in Congress to eliminate the dreaded second trip to the TWIC enrollment center, the industry also lost a battle, too.

In the crunch to complete business on the Coast Guard Authorization Bill, which had been hanging fire for more than a year in Congress, lawmakers dropped what became a controversial provision regarding the discharge of ballast water.

As sought by the U.S. barge industry, the provision would have set a nationwide standard for vessel discharges. It would have aligned U.S. law with the guidelines of the International Maritime Organization and have prohibited states from implementing stricter standards than those set by the federal government. Vessel owners currently must deal with a patchwork of overlapping and contradictory ballast water regulations that they say drive up costs and threaten jobs.

The provision fell under the weight of opposition from environmentalists and Great Lakes lawmakers. They argued that states should have the right to set tougher standards to protect their waterways from pollution and menacing aquatic invasive species. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who represents the Great Lakes shoreline in New York state, called the provision “flawed legislation that endangered the environmental and economic health of the Great Lakes.”

Supporters say they will try again when the new Congress convenes in January. “We came very close and made significance progress in 2012 and we’ll build on this in 2013,” Craig Montesano of American Waterways Operators told me this week.

The Coast Guard bill contains a few other important items for the maritime industry:

  • The Coast Guard’s two polar icebreakers would stay in operation until studies can be done on the costs and merits of extending the lives of these aging, obsolete vessels. The final version of the Coast Guard bill dropped a provision that would have decommissioned the Polar Star and the Polar Sea.
  • Federal agencies must either provide armed security for U.S.-flag vessels carrying U.S. government cargoes in high risk waters or reimburse vessel owners for this security.

The legislation is now awaiting the president’s signature at the White House.

Update: President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 21.

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