WASHINGTON » Senators from states along the Gulf of Mexico introduced legislation yesterday that would temporarily allow foreign ships to enter the gulf to aid in the oil spill cleanup effort.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., are sponsoring the WAIVER (Water Assistance from International Vessels for Emergency Response) Act, which provides for a blanket temporary waiver that would permit foreign ships to enter and exit U.S. ports if they are assisting in cleanup.
U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, R-Hawaii, arrived in Washington just three weeks ago but quickly roiled the waters with fellow members of the Hawaii congressional delegation and the Coast Guard by prodding President Barack Obama to waive the 90-year-old law so foreign ships can help respond to the huge oil spill.
"There is no good reason to turn away international help in responding to this environmental catastrophe," the congressman said Tuesday in a statement. Djou also noted that then-President George W. Bush waived the Jones Act in response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Federal officials heading the response say five foreign-flagged vessels already are helping with the cleanup. The National Incident Command, headed by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, issued a statement yesterday countering calls by Djou.
Under current law, ships transporting goods between U.S. ports must sail under American flags and carry an American crew. Congress approved the Jones Act in 1920 to help the U.S. maritime industry.
Foreign ships can request a waiver, but Hutchison said on the Senate floor Thursday that the federal bureaucracy has been slow to permit foreign ships into the gulf when "time is of the essence."
"During this crisis we need to cut through the red tape; we must get all available assets on the scene as quickly as possible," she said.
To be eligible for the waiver, ships must be "engaged in containment, remediation or associated activities in the Gulf of Mexico," according to the legislative language.
Hutchison said the bill would be in effect "for a period of time that is necessary to respond to the spill and restore the waters of the gulf."
David Matsuda, deputy maritime administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration, told a House Transportation subcommittee on Thursday that waivers for most vessels must be reviewed by the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard and the Department of Energy before U.S. Customs and Border Protection can make a final decision on a request.
He added, "As a threshold, however, such a determination is made only after the Maritime Administration finds that there are no U.S.-flagged vessels available for operation."
"The federal response to this spill has been a little short of immediate. … Since weeks have passed, I think it’s time for Congress to take the reins and try to do everything that is within our power to mitigate the damage to the gulf," Hutchinson said.
The administration told vessel operators Tuesday how to apply for expedited waivers, an effort that Cornyn spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said was "too little, too late."
This bill is necessary, he said, to "help preserve coastal economies" by enlisting additional help in halting the spill.
"We need all hands on deck without further delay," he said.
The Department of State released a chart yesterday detailing all the offers of aid it has received to date.
The list includes 19 countries and four international organizations, including the International Maritime Organization — four additional countries have made offers via the IMO. Some offers were made as early as April 30, 10 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the gulf.
So far, the U.S. has accepted offers of equipment from Canada, Mexico, Norway and the Netherlands. The other offers, which range from oil skimmers to technical expertise, remain under consideration.
Only one offer — a dispersant from France — was declined because the chemicals are not approved for use in the U.S.