The winds from Hurricane Fiona had barely moved past Puerto Rico before misguided critics of America’s freight cabotage law began asking for unnecessary waivers.
At one point a Category 4 storm, Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico Sept. 18, knocking out electrical power across the entire territory. Parts of the island were hit with nearly three feet of rain.
Nevertheless, U.S.-flag vessels continued delivering supplies to Puerto Rico almost uninterrupted. As was the case five years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, distribution on the island itself was challenging (due to infrastructure damage), but those issues had nothing to do with the Jones Act.
Reality didn’t stop several members of Congress from seeking a blanket, year-long waiver, nor did it prevent a single foreign-flag ship from showing up unannounced and securing a single waiver after initially being denied.
Responding to the waiver, the SIU, AMO, MEBA and MM&P sent a joint statement to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that read in part, “Our unions represent American Merchant Mariners who sail aboard Jones Act vessels, including those that serve Puerto Rico. Every day, our mariners go to work to ensure that Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States have safe and dependable domestic shipping, helping to move all the goods they need to live, work, and raise their families….
“The Jones Act is critical to our continued ability to maintain a domestic U.S.-flag merchant marine. As such, we take protecting it seriously. That’s why we are shocked and outraged at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s decision to issue an illegal, unjustified and unnecessary Jones Act waiver for a British Petroleum tanker that took active steps to ignore and then circumvent fundamental American law.”
The statement continued, “This waiver is a betrayal of the principles of federal maritime law dating back centuries, made worse by the facts of the case. A foreign ship with a foreign crew loaded fuel in an American port and diverted to Puerto Rico to take advantage of increased fuel prices after the island was hit by Hurricane Fiona. There was no national security crisis. There were American ships available – indeed, the ship was at sea four days before a waiver was even applied for. This cargo was not humanitarian aid. It was a blatant cash grab and a bald-faced political stunt. The companies behind this vessel gambled that they could pressure the U.S. government into ignoring our laws and policy because of the hurricane and they were correct. “Let us repeat – this waiver was unnecessary,” the unions added. “U.S.-flagged vessels and foreign flagged vessels carrying legal cargoes of fuel, either from American ports or from foreign ports, had safely discharged their cargoes in Puerto Rico after the storm. American ships were available. American crews were available. But none of that mattered, because the political optics of a ship waiting to bring fuel to the island apparently matters more than a century of bedrock American law.”
The statement concluded, “This waiver is an undeserved slap in the face to American mariners and U.S.-flag vessel operators. It potentially opens the door for future incursions by foreign-flag interests by giving them a roadmap of what they need to do in order to bully our government into giving them what they want – just show up on our doorstep and call the press. It sets a dangerous precedent, and it threatens the domestic industry at a time when we – like many other sectors of the economy – are challenged with worker shortages. In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the issuance of this waiver, and we urge the Department of Homeland Security to never approve a waiver like this again.”
The coalition American Maritime Partnership (AMP), to which the SIU is affiliated, also objected to the waiver. In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, AMP President Ku’uhaku Park stated, “The waiver is unlawful…. DHS has rewarded a foreign operator who has been widely criticized, both in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico, for its behavior.”
Similarly, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón noted, ““At each and every meeting, I have been assured by federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers that there is an adequate supply of fuel on the island that is available to consumers and that subsequent delivery is planned of more fuel in the short, medium and long term…. The vast majority of the fuel that Puerto Rico consumes comes from outside the United States, which is why it is transported on foreign-flagged ships from foreign ports. Therefore, the Jones Act does not apply and a waiver would not change the way fuel is transported at all.”
The Jones Act has protected U.S. national, economic and homeland security for more than a century. It requires that goods transported from one domestic port to another be carried aboard vessels that are crewed, built, flagged and owned U.S. Upwards of 90 countries across the globe maintain some form of cabotage law.
Earlier this year, a new study by Ernst & Young examined the Jones Act’s effects on Puerto Rico and concluded, “Across multiple metrics, shippers overwhelmingly associated better carrier performance with Jones Act carriers than non-Jones Act ones. In addition to providing stability and security in the region, the Jones Act shipping industry continues to provide substantial economic benefits to Puerto Rico.”
The study also found that the law has created and helps maintain more than 2,000 jobs in the territory; contributes $96 million in wages; and is responsible for $221 million in economic output.
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