More than two months have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, tragically killing 11 workers and causing a leak that is gushing up to 60,000 barrels of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico each day.
For Gulf Coast communities fearful oil will wash up on their beaches, for the fisherman and shrimpers whose livelihoods have essentially been cut off, and for the wildlife and ecosystems that are being destroyed, help literally cannot come fast enough.
The worsening environmental and economic consequences of the spill should be easy motivation to make absolutely sure every form of aid is available for the cleanup. However, there are some who are willing to help and are being turned away.
According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 20 countries have offered assistance in responding to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. But a law designed to promote United States shipping interests is preventing them from sending their ships and equipment to aid in the oil spill cleanup and response.
The Jones Act was established in 1920 to ensure that the United States was able to maintain a fleet of merchant ships by requiring that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S. flagged, owned, and crewed ships. This means that many foreign vessels have to obtain a waiver to this law in order to help with the oil spill.
Under the Jones Act, a bureaucratic review involving three separate federal agencies Ã¯Â¿Â½ the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maritime Administration, and Customs and Border Protection Ã¯Â¿Â½ is required in order for a waiver to be granted. In crisis cases, such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a burdensome review process does not serve our nation's best interests.
A Coast Guard official told ABC News, "We have exhausted all our East Coast supply of skimming vessels. We are now looking at Norway, France, Spain, and other European vessels."
While there are currently 15 foreign vessels assisting in oil spill recovery efforts, these vessels cannot perform skimming operations within three miles of our shoreline without a Jones Act waiver.
In other words, they are not allowed to assist with the cleanup effort to the fullest extent and helping to protect our coastline, which clearly is the area in need of the most protection.
Although the administration claims it will use a streamlined process for granting Jones Act waivers, we are already more than 65 days into this crisis and the red tape appears to be intact.
On June 16, a representative of a Dallas-based company began the application process for a Jones Act waiver for a fleet of foreign ships to get involved in the Gulf of Mexico cleanup efforts. He offered the federal government use of a mother ship for personnel and equipment, six oil skimming vessels, a specialized boom deployment and recovery boat, and 10 transport vessels.
He was told that the expedited procedures had not yet been established. This constituent has also appealed directly to the administration for a Jones Act waiver, and he has not yet received a response.
Meanwhile, the oil slick is spreading wider across the Gulf of Mexico and many Gulf Coast communities are bracing themselves for the oily waters to lap up onto their shores. To waste any tools or equipment that could help mitigate this disaster Ã¯Â¿Â½ or to delay the availability of critical assistance Ã¯Â¿Â½ is unthinkable.
I have introduced legislation to temporarily grant Jones Act waivers for foreign vessels so they can quickly deploy and assist with the cleanup in the most vulnerable areas along the Gulf Coast.
The Water Assistance from International Vessels for Emergency Response, or WAIVER Act, would simply cut the red tape, clear up the process confusion, and allow our response to the oil spill to be as expedient as possible. I also hope that this gesture will signal to our foreign partners that their assistance is welcome Ã¯Â¿Â½ and badly needed.
It is worth noting that the same thing could be accomplished without legislation. Three days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the previous administration issued an executive order to waive the Jones Act so that foreign-flagged ships could help with disaster relief efforts.
Unfortunately, with the Gulf Coast oil spill, more than two months have passed with this bureaucratic barrier standing in the way of recovery efforts.
I hope that, whether through passage of my legislation, or through an executive order, we can immediately take this commonsense action to help protect the environment and the livelihoods of the residents of the Gulf.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.