Eight Members of Congress Call for Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico

Stevedores work into the night to offload Crowley's El Coqui (Crowley Maritime)

Published Sep 24, 2022 8:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

Eight Democratic members of Congress have called for a "one-year comprehensive waiver" of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. 

In an open letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Representatives Nydia Velázquez, Jesús García, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ritchie Torres, Carolyn Maloney, Juan Vargas, Raúl Grijalva and Adriano Espaillat argued that temporarily suspending Jones Act requirements would help Puerto Ricans meet the challenge of post-storm reconstruction. The waiver, they argued, would give Puerto Rico "more access to the oil needed for its power plants, food, medicines, clothing, and building supplies." 

The American Maritime Partnership, the industry coalition representing Jones Act vessel operators and union members, pushed back in a separate letter. AMP opposes a Jones Act waiver for the hurricane response because cargo is already getting through, according to Ku'uhaku Park, president of the American Maritime Partnership.

"We agree with the Members' statement in the letter that nothing is more important right now than the security, safety and well-being of fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, which is why the domestic American maritime industry is working around the clock to assist with the recovery from the impacts of Hurricane Fiona," he said.  "Domestic vessel operators who regularly serve Puerto Rico were able to immediately restart operations once the ports reopened. Their ability to provide such prompt service to Puerto Rico is due to their preexisting investment in dedicated terminals, equipment, employees and vessels dedicated to the U.S.-Puerto Rico trade."

According to Park, Jones Act carriers had 2,000 containers in port and ready to unload as soon as the Coast Guard lifted restrictions. Six more ships have already arrived with an additional 4,000 containers. 

Jones Act carriers have additional capacity available to deliver relief cargoes as needed, and they are prioritizing emergency supplies over commercial cargoes, he said. ds

He also noted that Puerto Rico gets virtually all of its refined petroleum products from outside of the United States, using non-Jones Act tankers - so a waiver would not have much impact on these shipments. 

Park also pointed to the exemplary record of Jones Act carriers during the response to Hurricane Maria five years ago. FEMA described that sealift effort as "the largest sea-bridge operation of federal disaster aid in FEMA history."

The White House has given no indication that it would seek or support a waiver; President Joe Biden has been an outspoken Jones Act supporter throughout his political career.

"AMP appreciates this Administration's support of the people of Puerto Rico in immediately granting a federal disaster declaration, and we appreciate the Administration's steadfast support of the Jones Act as well. Domestic vessel operators stand ready to assist Puerto Rico with the rebuilding process and remain committed to serving the island," Park concluded. 

Hurricane Fiona dumped 20-32 inches of rain on large parts of Puerto Rico, causing extensive flood damage, and the whole island lost power as its antiquated electrical grid failed. About 20 percent of households had power restored as of Tuesday and about 50 percent by Saturday. President Biden has approved a major disaster declaration, authoritizing FEMA to provide assistance throughout the island. Critical needs payments of $700 per household are available, and 170,000 applications have been received. FEMA has deployed about 1,000 extra staff to the island (plus 700 permanently stationed) to handle the caseload and coordinate the recovery. 

Over the course of the week, Fiona continued to churn north through the Atlantic as a post-tropical storm, and on Saturday it hit Eastern Canada with heavy rain and high winds. Port aux Basques, Newfoundland reportedly lost an apartment building, at least 20 houses and some town streets to storm surge and flooding.