Congress Authorizes Oil Spill Prevention, Fishing Vessel Safety Upgrades

WASHINGTON, DC, October 4, 2010 (ENS) – Congress Friday unanimously passed and sent to the President the first authorization bill the U.S. Coast Guard has had since 2006. The measure strengthens oil spill protections, saves taxpayer dollars by overhauling a failed Coast Guard acquisitions program and sets new fishing vessel safety standards.

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, drafted the Coast Guard Authorization bill and led the effort to overcome minority-party opposition that has blocked Coast Guard legislation for the past four years.

“It has been nearly four years in the making to get this important legislation through Congress,” Senator Cantwell said in a Senate floor speech after the Senate passed the measure. “This bill establishes new laws on oil spill prevention and fishing vessel safety so that we can continue to operate in these pristine waters in a safe and effective manner.”

Cantwell fought for language eventually included in the bill that will enhance spill prevention efforts on vessels transporting oil, reduce ship and tanker traffic in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, extend the oil spill response safety net from Puget Sound out to the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and establish a stronger role for Indian tribes.

Oil tanker travels through Washington state’s Puget Sound on its way to an oil refinery in Anacortes. (Photo by fanewlanew)

At least 600 oil tankers and 3,000 oil barges travel through Puget Sound’s fragile ecosystem annually, carrying about 15 billion gallons of oil to Washington’s five refineries.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the United States and Canada, also has significant outbound tanker traffic originating in Vancouver and carrying Canadian oil.

Current rules require industry to position oil spill response equipment in Puget Sound. Until now, however, those requirements have not covered the full length of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leaving that busy shipping lane unprotected.

Cantwell’s provision extends the “high volume port area” designation west to Cape Flattery, the westernmost point of land in the United States. As a result, oil spill response equipment, such as booms and barriers, will be prepositioned along the Juan de Fuca Strait, supplementing the response equipment already in place in Puget Sound.

Cantwell also fought to include a provision that requires tug escorts for double-hulled tankers in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 750,000 barrels of oil that devastated the environment. In part because the Exxon Valdez was single-hulled, Congress has enacted separate legislation requiring all tankers operating in U.S. waters to be double-hulled by 2015.

The Coast Guard Authorization measure also requires the Coast Guard to address the risk of spills resulting from oil transfer operations, address the risk of spills from human error, and establish a grant program to reduce smaller spills on recreational boats or fishing vessels.

Commercial fishing is ranked as the nation’s most dangerous occupation, and Cantwell said Wednesday that she fought to have the new fishing vessel standards included in the final legislation.

Citing a Coast Guard analysis of 934 deaths between 1992 and 2007 that assigned 55 percent of the fatalities to vessels flooding, capsizing or sinking, a “Seattle Times” editorial said today, “Lives will be saved because of her efforts.”

The new fishing vessel standards provide that vessels over 50 feet long built after 2012 will have to be approved as seaworthy by an independent classification society. Those built before 2012 will be required to comply with a Coast Guard alternative safety compliance program by 2020.

Smaller fishing vessels will have to meet the same basic safety standards currently applied to recreational vessels.

The vessel provision also updates training and safety equipment requirements, and finally gives the Coast Guard the ability to make such requirements region-specific and fishery-specific.

The measure also overhauls all Coast Guard acquisitions, including the U.S. Coast Guard’s troubled Deepwater program.

Deepwater, a partnership between the Coast Guard and a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, known as Integrated Coast Guard Systems, is a 25-year, $24 billion initiative to replace the aging fleet of Coast Guard assets used in missions more than 50 miles from the coast. It is the largest procurement effort in the Coast Guard’s history.

Cantwell’s language in this section of the bill stems from a multi-year investigation she spearheaded that uncovered major problems, including cost overruns and cracks in the hulls of newly refurbished vessels.

The measure seeks to ensure open competition in future Coast Guard acquisitions, end the Coast Guard’s reliance on the private sector to manage its procurements, and mandate better technical oversight by Coast Guard engineering staff.

“The Coast Guard’s Deepwater program wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and deprived the Coast Guard of the equipment it so urgently needs,” Cantwell said. “This bill comes at a time when we continue to want to have the Coast Guard have the best resources to meet the mission and requirements of the job, but to do their acquisition in a responsible way.”

An icebreaker provision in the bill directs the Coast Guard to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of recapitalizing the polar icebreaker fleet, which is based in Puget Sound. The analysis will consider the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus rebuilding the existing vessels.

The bill authorizes the Coast Guard’s funding levels for fiscal year 2011 and includes new authority for the Coast Guard to work with international maritime authorities and organizations.

It requires the Coast Guard to pursue enforcement of international oil pollution agreements covering the high seas, reducing the threat of oil spills in international waters.

In the 110th Congress, the House first passed the Coast Guard bill on October 23, 2009 and the Senate passed it on May 7, 2010. After overcoming anonymous holds and other objections, the reconciliation version of the two bills passed the Senate Thursday night and on Friday the House sent the final version to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.