Cantwell Touts Wins for Washington, Environment, Coast Guard as Final NDAA Bill Passes the Senate

Legislation formally authorizes six icebreakers, three of which Coast Guard intends to homeport in Seattle

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) authored and helped secure a number of provisions to help Washington state, protect the environment, and support Coast Guard members and their families in the final National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which passed the Senate today by a vote of 84-13. Cantwell’s Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, which was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee last July and is included in this year’s final NDAA, formally authorizes six polar icebreakers (three of which the Coast Guard intends to homeport in Seattle), establishes new protections for Southern resident orcas, strengthens oil spill prevention measures, and enacts provisions to protect the environment and promote the recruitment and retention of women in the Coast Guard. The NDAA passed the House of Representatives earlier this week by a vote of 335-78.

Provisions Cantwell helped secure as part of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act will:

Authorize six icebreakers and advance U.S. Arctic leadership

  • The legislation authorizes three heavy icebreakers that the Coast Guard intends to homeport in Seattle. It also formally authorizes three additional icebreakers for the first time, for a total of six icebreakers.
  • Building the icebreaker fleet will help improve American competitiveness in the Arctic. Shipping via the Northern Sea route can decrease shipping transit times by as much as two weeks. Icebreakers in Seattle ensure that the State of Washington continues to play a leadership role in Arctic exploration, trade, security, and environmental protection.

“The reality is, there is a race on for the Arctic passageway, and we need to be ready,” Senator Cantwell said. “This formal authorization of six polar icebreakers will send a strong message to the rest of the world: the United States is showing up in the Arctic. And with three of the icebreakers homeported in Seattle, this is a big win for the State of Washington and an opportunity for us to continue to pave the way in Arctic exploration, scientific research, and protecting our nation’s foreign policy interests.”

Protect Southern resident orcas

  • The legislation requires the Coast Guard to work with the State of Washington, Tribes, and others to establish a pilot program modeled after the ECHO Program in British Columbia to reduce impacts of vessel noise from large shipping traffic on Southern resident orcas. NOAA research indicates that vessel noise is a significant risk factor facing Southern residents. This program will bring the Coast Guard, NOAA, our ports and Tribes together to develop a program to reduce vessel noise in Puget Sound. More information is available HERE.
  • It also requires the Coast Guard to increase the enforcement of orca protection regulations and policies, such as small vessel traffic buffer zones, speed reduction, boater education and no go zones in Puget Sound to protect orcas. The 2018 Soundwatch annual report found that when Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement vessels are present, orca-related vessel violations decrease. By building the enforcement activity with the Coast Guard, the hope is that interactions between vessel traffic and orcas will continue to be reduced.

Improve oil spill prevention and research

  • The legislation codifies a number of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to reduce the risk of vessel accidents and oil spills and improve vessel safety. Specifically, the bill improves coordination and operations of Vessel Traffic Service Centers, which act similar to air traffic control for some of America’s busiest waterways, including Seattle.
  • The bill amends the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was put in place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to direct the Coast Guard to lead and revitalize interagency efforts to coordinate oil spill research and response technology development. The evaluation must include research on oil sands, or heavy class oils, which current oil spill technology is not able to sufficiently clean up in the event of a spill. The Coast Guard would also be required to coordinate with the National Academy of Sciences to complete this report every 10 years to ensure the most up-to-date science is applied to our oil spill response framework.
  • It also requires research and technology evaluations for all classes of oil, including heavy oils, to ensure the Coast Guard and other agencies have the knowledge and technology necessary to clean up tar sands oil.

Improve commercial fishing safety

  • The bill also includes a Cantwell-authored provision to improve the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee and increase the frequency of committee meetings. The Committee’s purpose is to ensure representatives from the fishing industry, boat building industry and safety advocates have the ability evaluate fishing vessel safety issues, review fishing vessel accidents and provide recommendations to the Coast Guard to reduce vessel accidents and improve safety at sea.
  • These provisions are in response to repeated requests from Washington state fishermen to Congress to ensure that their voices are heard, as numerous recommendations from the Committee have not resulted in meaningful action from the Coast Guard.

Ensure tsunami safety

  • The legislation requires a study and recommendations needed to plan tsunami vertical evacuation infrastructure for Coast Guard members and their families stationed in Grays Harbor, as well as to understand the evacuation needs of the surrounding Grays Harbor community. This is particularly important as that the Coast Guard unit is located in an inundation area that would be impacted by a Cascadia Subduction Zone Tsunami. 

Speaking on the Senate floor about this legislation on Tuesday, Senator Cantwell said: “And so I hope that my colleagues will look favorably on this legislation. We all know how important the Coast Guard is to—we all know how important the Coast Guard is to our nation, and an example of that ice-breaking capacity, but there are other aspects of this Coast Guard bill that we're also proud of. Making sure that it works more robustly with fishermen on fishing safety, do more to examine the impacts of tar sands, to make sure that our orca population is saved from noise impact, and further reducing that impact on our orca population.”

Support Coast Guard women and families

  • It makes significant improvements to the Coast Guard policies needed to recruit, retain, and invest in women in the Coast Guard. A 2019 report titled Why Do Women Leave the Coast Guard, and What Can Be Done to Encourage Them to Stay? made a number of recommendations to help improve retention of women in the Coast Guard. The bill requires the Commandant implement these recommendations. 
  • The bill creates two new advisory boards to support women throughout their Coast Guard careers, from the academy to leadership. Both advisory boards would bring recommendations to support women serving in the Coast Guard directly to the Commandant to ensure women’s voices are heard. 
  • The legislation requires the Coast Guard to create a public strategy to improve leadership development and improve the culture of inclusion and diversity in the Coast Guard. The bill also includes a number of reforms to improve diversity and inclusion at the Coast Guard Academy.
  • It also creates new programs and resources to improve access to child care for Coast Guard families, which women have identified as a key barrier to long-term success in the Coast Guard.
  • The bill establishes a public-private partnership pilot program to expand access to childcare facilities for Coast Guard children in underserved areas.
  • The bill also establishes procedures to enable more Coast Guard family child care centers to be established in off base housing, creating entrepreneurship opportunities for interested spouses as well as additional childcare options for Coast Guard families.
  • Senator Cantwell has worked to improve access to medical care for Coast Guard members and families, especially for members serving in remote locations. This directs the Government Accountability Office to do a thorough analysis to identify access barriers to medical care for all Coast Guard members and families, especially members stationed in remote areas.

In her Senate floor speech, Cantwell highlighted the impact these reforms could have on women serving in the Coast Guard: “[We are] Instituting new reforms within the Coast Guard to really help and empower women… and to make sure that they have what they need, [including] vital child care opportunities for Coast Guard families. And to make sure there is zero tolerance in the approach to any kind of sexual assault or sexual harassment.”

Video of Senator Cantwell’s floor speech on the Coast Guard provisions in the NDAA is available HERE, and audio is available HERE.