Obama Signs Cantwell-Authored Coast Guard Bill Creating New Fishing Vessel Safety and Oil Spill Prevention Laws

U.S. coastal waters, including Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Prince William Sound receive new oil spill protections

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, President Obama signed into law a Coast Guard Authorization bill that creates new fishing vessel safety standards and strengthens oil spill protections for Puget Sound and other U.S. coastal waters.  Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, drafted the bill and led the effort to overcome minority-party opposition that had blocked Coast Guard legislation for the past four years.  The bill includes important provisions authored by Cantwell to strengthen protections against oil spills and save taxpayer dollars by overhauling a failed Coast Guard acquisitions program, as well as sweeping improvements to fishing vessel safety that Cantwell fought to include in the bill during House-Senate negotiations. The bill passed the Senate without opposition the evening of September 29th and was sent to the President by the House early in the morning on September 30th.
“After four long years, this important legislation protecting our fishermen and our pristine waters from oil spills is now the law,” Senator Cantwell said. “This new law delivers sorely-needed safety improvements to our fishing vessels and maritime industry, and new oil spill prevention requirements that will better protect Puget Sound and Washington’s coasts.”
Cantwell fought to have fishing vessel safety language, initially passed by the House, included in the final version of the bill.  This provision is a sweeping new improvement to fishing vessel safety standards, requiring that all large fishing vessels built after 2012 be approved as seaworthy by an independent classification society.  Smaller fishing vessels will have to meet the same basic safety standards currently applied to recreational vessels.  Large fishing vessels – those over 50 feet long – built before 2012 will be required to comply with a Coast Guard alternative safety compliance program by 2020.  The provision also updates training and safety equipment requirements, and finally gives the Coast Guard the ability to make such requirements region- and fishery-specific.
Since 2006, long before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, Cantwell has been fighting for her spill prevention and coastal protection legislation contained in the Coast Guard Authorization bill.  The Cantwell-authored measures improve oil spill prevention and response and implement long-sought environmental safeguards to protect America’s waterways from devastating contamination.  Cantwell’s language will enhance spill prevention efforts on vessels transporting oil, further 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.  Cantwell also fought to include a provision that requires tug escorts for double-hulled tankers in Prince William Sound.
Approximately 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 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.  As a result, oil spill response equipment, such as booms and barriers, will be prepositioned along the Strait, supplementing the response equipment already in place in Puget Sound.
The oil spill response provisions included in the Coast Guard bill follow previous efforts by Senator Cantwell to protect Pacific Northwest waters.  For example, Cantwell championed federal legislation to help make the oil spill response tug at Neah Bay a year-round fixture funded by the oil and shipping industries.  At Cantwell’s urging, the Coast Guard changed a federal regulation on December 21, 2008 which cleared the way for action last year on legislation sponsored by State Senator Kevin Ranker and State Representative Kevin Van De Wege to permanently station a response tug at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 
The Coast Guard Authorization 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. The bill 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.  It also requires the 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.
The bill includes Cantwell’s comprehensive acquisitions reform title which overhauls all Coast Guard acquisitions, including the U.S. Coast Guard’s troubled “Deepwater” program.  Cantwell’s title 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.
Deepwater – a partnership between the Coast Guard and a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, known as Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS) – 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.  Senator Cantwell chaired a hearing in 2007 that exposed glaring problems with the program, including cost overruns, serious design flaws, ships and technology that failed to meet basic contract requirements, and a contract structure that took oversight power away from the Coast Guard and gave primary decision-making authority to ICGS.
“The Coast Guard’s Deepwater program wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and deprived the Coast Guard of the equipment it so urgently needs,” Senator Cantwell said. “The reforms in this new law to the flawed acquisitions process will ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and responsibly on equipment that actually meets the needs of the Coast Guard.”
Some of the bill’s other provisions include:
Polar Icebreakers:  An icebreaker provision in the bill directs the Coast Guard to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of recapitalizing the Coast Guard’s 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. 
Coast Guard Reorganization & Modernization: The bill allows the Coast Guard to rework its command structure and increase its alignment with other armed forces.  This altered command structure is a next step in the Coast Guard’s ongoing reorganization and modernization based on the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters.  This bill also provides the Coast Guard greater authority to support and work with international maritime authorities and organizations.  This will help the Coast Guard get better access to global safety and security information on foreign vessels.  It will also allow the Coast Guard to work more cooperatively with other nations on law enforcement and maritime safety.
Supporting Coast Guard Personnel: This bill makes several changes to better support the men and women who serve their country in the U.S. Coast Guard.  It gives greater flexibility for service-members to retain leave in cases of major disasters and other emergencies, allows greater reimbursement for medical-related expenses, and allows Coast Guard service-members to participate in the Armed Forces Retirement Home system.
Maritime Safety: In addition to the fishing vessel safety provisions, the final bill includes additional provisions making maritime safety a more explicit priority among the Coast Guard’s missions.  For example, it establishes specific career paths in maritime safety, creates accident prevention and response centers of excellence, requires the Coast Guard to develop a marine safety strategy, and mandates the establishment of marine safety curriculum at the Coast Guard Academy.
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 September 29th and the House sent the final version to the President on September 30th.
Watch a video of Senator Cantwell speaking on the Senate floor just after the vote on September 29th.