Editorial: Balance the ballast in Coast Guard act

Good legislation is aground in the Senate in a disagreement over ballast and invasive species.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Ballast — weight provided either by a ship’s cargo, solid materials or by water pumped into ballast tanks — is used to steady a ship, even in the heaviest seas. But the weight of the ballast has to be balanced to keep the ship’s center of gravity low and the vessel on an even keel.

Keeping legislation balanced is the challenge confronting the U.S. Senate as it considers the Coast Guard reauthorization act, which authorizes funding for the military service charged with maritime safety, security and law enforcement. The legislation is carrying a freighter-full of provisions, many of them sought by lawmakers from Washington state and other West Coast states.

But one provision in the act — regarding ballast regulations — has, so far, kept the legislation in its D.C. port as Democrats and Republicans argue over how best to balance its weight. The reauthorization act last month failed to get the votes of 60 senators needed in a procedural vote to move forward.

Among the no votes were several Northwest and Great Lakes region senators who objected to a provision that makes significant changes to the regulation of ballast water, a concern for those regions because of the risk for invasive species to hitch a ride in ballast tanks and find a new home in waters where they’re not welcome.

The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act included in the legislation moves authority for regulating discharge of ballast water from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Coast Guard. VIDA has been sought by industry groups, such as the American Waterways Operators, which sought a national standard that would be simpler to comply with than the existing patchwork of state and federal regulations.

Along with Great Lakes states’ Democrats, Northwest Democratic senators opposed including VIDA in the reauthorization act and voted against the bill, even though, especially in the case of Sen. Maria Cantwell, the act contains provisions they authored and negotiated.

Among the cargo in the Coast Guard bill is an exemption for a fishing trawler built at Dakota Creek Industries shipyard in Anacortes. Because the hull of the 264-foot factory trawler, America’s Finest, was mistakenly built with too much steel modified overseas, it’s legally prevented from fishing in U.S. waters by the Jones Act. Washington state lawmakers, including Cantwell, have sought an exemption for the trawler. An attempt to include it the spending bill failed in March, and it now waits as part of the Coast Guard bill.

Cantwell also included amendments in the bill regarding funding for heavy maintenance needed by the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star, improvements to fishing vessel safety, review of oil spill response plans and a change to the family leave policy for those in the Coast Guard for births and adoptions, so Cantwell and other Northwest senators have reason to support the act, beyond the necessity of authorizing spending for the military branch.

But it’s VIDA that sunk the recent vote, because, Cantwell said in a statement, it would have forced “the Senate to agree to bad ballast water language that would weaken water protection rules.”

Staff from Cantwell’s office said this week that the concerns for invasive species in the Great Lakes are shared in the Northwest, specifically for the fresh waters of the Lower Columbia River and other Northwest rivers. Among the species of concern are quagga and zebra mussels that bring with them the potential to foul intakes on Northwest dams and displace native species.

But party politics may also be at play, with Northwest Democrats aligning with the Great Lakes senators against legislation sought by Republicans. Charles Costanzo and Craig Montesano with American Waterways Operators point out that Cantwell was key to crafting earlier compromise language on VIDA and worked with Washington state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding its concerns.

An April 17 letter to Cantwell from Joe Stohr, director of Fish and Wildlife, gave the department’s sign-off on the VIDA compromise, which, he said, provided the appropriate balance and preserved the department’s role in managing ballast water and invasive species. The compromise wasn’t perfect, Stohr admitted, but would provide a positive outcome for the state.

Negotiations reportedly are continuing on the Coast Guard reauthorization act, which can be brought back for a vote in the Senate.

There’s a shipload of good cargo in the act. Senators need to set any party concerns aside, continue their work to balance the cargo and put the Coast Guard reauthorization act to sea.

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