The waterways industry is regrouping after losing its latest bid to pass legislation in Congress that would allow barge companies to operate their vessels in multiple states under one set of national standards on ballast water discharges. Currently operators must comply with the discharge requirements of 25 different states, which they say are confusing and hinder maritime commerce.
The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) capsized on a key procedural vote in the Senate last week, when the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017 failed by three votes to reach the 60 required to end debate and advance the bill to final passage. The vote was 56-42, with many senators who had supported VIDA in the past switching their votes at the last minute. Many of them are up for re-election in November.
Until last week, the American Waterways Operators had at least 60 senators supporting VIDA but when the votes were counted, eight lawmakers — including those who had co-sponsored the bill in current or previous Congresses — changed their minds and went against it. They were from Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president of the AWO, said senators who changed their minds did so to address concerns of colleagues from the Great Lakes who wanted more time before voting. It was not based on policy, she said, explaining that this VIDA version is far more stringent than versions co-sponsored by senators who now voted against it. “This was politics, of senators wanting to stand by their Great Lakes colleagues.”
As currently proposed, VIDA would exempt a vessel’s ballast water from Clean Water Act oversight under the Environmental Protection Agency and stop states from regulating the discharges by giving the Coast Guard sole authority over ballast water standards. The industry has been seeking this change for at least the past five years without success.
VIDA is a top legislative priority of AWO, which represents the nation’s inland barge industry. Operators have long complained that a patchwork of federal and state standards for ballast water discharges creates a costly bureaucratic nightmare for companies that operate in multiple states. The federal government does not require other transportation modes like airplanes, trains or trucks to follow different environmental standards when their vehicles cross state lines, notes Thomas Allegretti, AWO president and CEO, “so to require this of commercial vessels defies common sense and threatens the viability of maritime commerce.”
AWO says it hasn’t given up on VIDA this year, and is asking its members to speak with senators who flipped their positions and urge them to return as supporters because passing this legislation is important to maritime constituents in their states. “This is absolutely not dead,” Carpenter said. “We’re working to keep the momentum up. This is something that needs to be resolved this year, and VIDA is a very bipartisan and balanced bill.”
Politics aside, opponents have serious arguments against the bill. They object to removing the EPA’s authority and handing it solely to the Coast Guard, arguing that this would weaken important water protections, open the door to pollution and allow harmful organisms like zebra mussels and quagga mussels to be released from ballast water of ships. They also question whether the Coast Guard is equipped to do the oversight work.
“VIDA moves us away from the responsible management of ballast water discharges to completely removing Clean Water Act authority over ship ballast water discharges,” a coalition of environmental groups, including American Rivers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote to senators last week.
Influential senators from Great Lakes states, including New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, said they believed the bill would further harm the lakes, which are already struggling with an invasion of aquatic species.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the Senate minority leader who led the opposition in the Senate, said that when he learned that VIDA was attached to the Coast Guard bill, “I immediately got to work. I made it crystal clear to my colleagues that any proposal that would harm the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River is a non-starter.”
The Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes praised the Senate vote, saying that “people of the Great Lakes region have spoken out repeatedly against this legislation and today they have won. Aquatic invasive species have caused irreparable harm to the Great Lakes ecosystem and cost the region billions of dollars since the late 1980s.”
For Democratic state attorneys general, the issue was about preserving states’ rights to protect their waterways from pollution. “This legislation seeks to preempt traditional state authority to take the actions necessary for protecting state water resources, while doing away with existing federal laws that safeguard our nation’s water against harmful pollutant discharges from vessels,” wrote 10 state attorneys general in a a letter to senators last week.
It’s unclear if the Coast Guard bill will get another chance at passage either with or without the ballast water provision.