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By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily New Staff Writer
There are some major Ketchikan- and Alaska-specific provisions put forward in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 — a bipartisan piece of legislation that passed the U.S. Senate last Wednesday with a vote of 94-6.
The Daily News spoke with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, on Tuesday and discussed some of the key provisions in the bill, which he co-authored.
The legislation contains a number of provisions, ranging from U.S. Coast Guard recapitalization efforts and exempting incidental discharge regulations to working toward permanently homeporting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel Fairweather in the First City.
Sullivan, who has been a major proponent of bolstering U.S. military assets, explained that this legislation, should it be signed into law, would further bolster the Coast Guard’s ability to do its job.
“This (bill) is essentially the National Defense Authorization Act for the Coast Guard,” Sullivan explained.
So what does this legislation do? Quite a bit.
“At the big picture level it’s doing what we’re doing with the military, which is we’re rebuilding it — there is a major recapitalization program going on,” Sullivan said. “… This does the authorization (for) a lot of these cutters that are part of that.”
The bill authorizes a number of Coast Guard fast-response and national security cutters, according to the senator.
“In terms of this recapitalization, we see a lot of these vessels coming to Southeast Alaska. For example, six fast-response cutters that are being built, and are part of this bill, are slated for Alaska, and two additional patrol boats are for Petersburg and Juneau,” Sullivan said on the Senate floor Thursday following Senate passage of the legislation.
Sullivan told the Daily News that another aspect of the bill is that it provides for a continuance of coverage for Coast Guard cutters, which mitigates potential gaps in coverage if — for example — a ship is decommissioned and needs to be replaced.
There is also an entire provision in the legislation relating to Coast Guard operations and strategy in the Arctic region. According to Sullivan, the provision requires the Coast Guard to examine its Arctic strategy and report on what additional assets it might need.
“So bottom line, I believe that we’re already doing well with the recapitalization, getting more Coast Guard assets in terms of cutters and aircraft, but this bill lays the groundwork for even more,” Sullivan said.
Another key provision of the legislation is the inclusion of language that exempts commercial fishing vessels from having to report to the Environmental Protection Agency for “incidental discharges” like hosing off fish waste into the water, vessel deck runoff and other negligible discharges.
Sullivan said that the change is a win for fishermen in the state because it protects them from potential litigation should they do something as simple as depositing “fish slime” into the water.
Under current regulations, “If you’re not in compliance, outside environmental groups can sue your vessel to comply,” Sullivan said. “So, a very burdensome regulation that nobody has supported, or very few have supported, yet was hoisted on the Alaska and American fishing fleet.”
There are also two provisions in the legislation that would have a profound impact in Ketchikan specifically.
The first is the inclusion of language that would allow Vigor Alaska to repair and conduct maintenance on Coast Guard ships by prioritizing strategy over small business set-aside regulations that have prevented the company from work on some federal assets like Coast Guard cutters at the Ketchikan Shipyard.
“(The provision) essentially says for conversion, alteration and repair projects for major Coast Guard vessels (that) the Coast Guard should be looking at economics and national security, and not be limited by other regulatory mandates,” Sullivan said.
“Because the Ketchikan Shipyard is (operated) by Vigor (it) is not considered a small business even though the whole point of the small business focus is to provide economic opportunities to more isolated parts of the country, i.e. Alaska,” he said. “… This provision is going to help with that significantly.”
The second Ketchikan-centric provision is language allowing the U.S. Commerce Department to accept non-federal funds in order to build a new port facility to facilitate the homeporting of the NOAA research vessel Fairweather.
The Fairweather’s legal homeport is Ketchikan, however, its current facility on Stedman Street was condemned in 2008 and subsequent efforts to bring the ship back to the First City have been unsuccessful.
Sullivan said this has been an matter he has been working on since the day he got into the Senate, and that he has spoken with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as well as top NOAA officials about the issue.
According to Sullivan, the language in the provision is intentionally broad, and could allow state or Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority monies to be allocated to the project.
“(The provision) tries to make the economic case much stronger for Ketchikan by saying non-federal dollars — perhaps State of Alaska dollars — can be used in part to offset the cost of refurbishing this dilapidated dock,” Sullivan said.
The particular provision applies only to Ketchikan, as the section of the bill specifically addresses the Fairweather itself.
Sullivan said that Alaska Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, helped with the concept, with the U.S. senator giving Stedman much of the credit for the idea.
“This is a good important development, and I want to thank Sen. Stedman and his team for their hard work on this,” Sullivan said.
Both of those items have also been priorities for the borough during federal advocacy trips to Washington, D.C.
The senator said he is hoping this bipartisan legislation will land on President Trump’s desk soon.
“The goal is to have the House simply pass this exact bill and have it go to the president,” Sullivan said.