If every time a truck crossed state lines, that truck needed to install new equipment, or the driver had to follow different sets of confusing, conflicting and expensive regulations, would the fact that the road was in perfect condition cancel out the high cost and inefficiency? Of course not. The federal regulatory framework that supports safe and efficient interstate commerce is as important as the physical infrastructure in keeping our nation’s transportation system running.
The same is true of maritime transportation, an interstate endeavor by nature. As critical as it is to invest in upgrading and maintaining the locks, dams, ports and harbors that comprise our waterways infrastructure, it is equally critical that the statutes and regulations governing waterborne commerce support high standards of both environmental protection and transportation efficiency by not forcing vessel operators to navigate an unworkable patchwork of federal and state regulations.
The stakes, both for the maritime industry and for our nation, are high. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study released last summer by The American Waterways Operators and the U.S. Maritime Administration, the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry — a subset of the domestic maritime industry — supports over 300,000 jobs nationwide and annually transports more than 760 million tons of vital commodities that drive our economy, including containerized products, steel, agricultural products, petroleum, coal and chemicals. The PwC study also documents that compared to other modes of transportation, tugboats, towboats and barges pose the lowest risk to the public, have the smallest environmental footprint, and provide the most efficient mode of cargo transport. For example, one inland dry cargo barge moves the same amount as 16 rail cars or 70 tractor trailers.
Today, this vital industry is burdened by a dysfunctional regulatory system that only Congress can fix. Commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters are subject to a maze of some 150 regulations, imposed by two federal agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard) and 25 states, governing ballast water and other discharges incidental to normal vessel operations. Each time a vessel crosses state lines, a new set of requirements may apply. These duplicative and sometimes conflicting regulations threaten a vessel owner’s ability to transport cargo efficiently across state lines and create uncertainty for owners trying to install technologies to comply with multiple requirements. This perversely delays investment in environmentally beneficial discharge treatment technology! The regulatory hodgepodge also creates significant burdens on vessel crewmembers who are responsible for understanding and complying with differing requirements on a daily basis.
A statutory solution to resolve this dysfunction is both urgently needed and readily available: The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) would establish a uniform national framework for the regulation of ballast water and other vessel discharges, with defined and appropriate roles for the Coast Guard, EPA and the states.
Specifically, VIDA would provide vessel owners and mariners with a predictable and transparent regulatory structure in which vessel incidental discharges are regulated by the Coast Guard, and would ensure the highest standard of environmental protection for all U.S. waterways by requiring vessel owners to meet the ballast water discharge standard that EPA’s Science Advisory Board and the National Academy of Sciences have deemed the most stringent currently available. It would also establish a mechanism to raise the standard over time as technology improves. VIDA also preserves the ability of states to enforce the federal ballast water discharge standard, petition for a higher standard, work with the Coast Guard to develop best management practices, and regulate recreational vessels operating in their waters.
In other words, this legislation strikes a thoughtful balance between federal and state prerogatives in interstate commerce, and between the compelling interests of safeguarding economic efficiency and protecting the environment. It is a substantial policy achievement.
VIDA is not only eminently sensible policy, it also enjoys bipartisan support with a diverse array of cosponsors and supporters from all parts of the country, in both the House and the Senate. It is supported by a broad-based national coalition including vessel owners, labor unions, ports, shippers, and businesses and organizations that rely on maritime commerce to ensure their livelihoods and their competitiveness.
In this election year most especially, it will not often be the case that legislation comes along on which both sides of the aisle agree, and that also happens to be the right policy for an industry on which the United States truly depends. Congress owes it to the nation to seize this opportunity and pass VIDA now.
• Thomas A. Allegretti is President and CEO of The American Waterways Operators.
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