EPA Discharge Permit Exemption Legislation Passes Senate

July 22, 2008 

Senate Passes Murkowski bill For a moratorium On discharge permits for commercial fishing vessels  House Voted and passed legislation later in the day.  WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Senate today unanimously passed a bill authored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, both Alaska Republicans, that would provide commercial fishing boats and other small commercial vessels a two-year moratorium from permits for discharges under the Clean Water Act. 

The bill also directs the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study to determine the types, volumes and effects of discharges from commercial vessels of different sizes and categories.  The EPA would provide a report to Congress within 15 months that would be used to determine if permanent exemptions are warranted.  

This legislation is a companion bill to the Clean Boating Act which also passed the Senate by unanimous consent today. The U.S. House of Representatives was scheduled to consider both bills as early as this afternoon. The Clean Boating Act provides a permanent exemption to recreational vessels to the same incidental discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.  

 “In Alaska, the 9,700 vessels that make up the commercial fishing fleet are predominantly small boats, with an average length of 36 feet,” Murkowski said. “Similar to recreational boats, they operate seasonally, spending around 90 days on the water each year. Commercial vessel discharges are comparable to recreational for the same sized vessels. Although the recreational sector was able to get an exemption, it is my hope that the commercial vessel study will provide the data to justify a similar exemption for the commercial sector.” 

Said Stevens: “This compromise was hard fought. Senator Boxer’s bill only exempted recreational boaters from arduous Clean Water Act standards but it left small commercial fishermen facing the same standards as a cruise liner. The owner of a yacht would have qualified for the exemption but gillnetters on a 35-foot boat would’ve had to commit their time and resources to getting an additional federal permit. This compromise will allow for a two-year exemption while the impacts of incidental discharge are studied. It is my hope that we will eventually make the exemption for commercial and recreational vessels permanent.” 

The commercial vessels that are covered under the moratorium are commercial fishing vessels of any size and other commercial vessels less than 79 feet. 

Discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels have been exempt from the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act since 1973. The NPDES was developed for industrial sources of pollution and was not designed for mobile sources. 

In 2006, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act in exempting these discharges and issued an order revoking the exemption and requiring the agency to permit these discharges by September 30, 2008.  The EPA has appealed the decision, but in the meantime, the agency has proposed to permit both recreational and commercial vessels under two general permits. 

Murkowski said that neither recreational nor small commercial vessels have documented discharge levels that have been shown to be harmful to the environment. The court case that required the EPA to develop a permit system was focused on invasive species and ballast water. Neither recreational nor small commercial vessels have ballast tanks and very few are ocean-going vessels. 

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