The governor of Puerto Rico says he expects the federal government to lift shipping restrictions to facilitate hurricane recovery efforts, but for now the Department of Homeland Security won’t waive the Jones Act, which only allows U.S.-flagged vessels to ship between U.S. coasts.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello told CNN Wednesday, a week after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, that he’s in contact with members of Congress about obtaining a waiver. The U.S. territory received a temporary waiver to address fuel-supply issues in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
[A waiver of the Jones Act] is critical, particularly for fuel,” Rossello said in an interview with CNN. “One of the considerations right now is the priority of getting fuel, diesel, gasoline, all across the island. Right now we have enough fuel. We’re limited by the transportation logistics, but at some point of course, getting fuel into the island is going to be critical so that we can have the major functions of telecoms, hospitals, water, to be running appropriately.”
Speaking with reporters on a press call Wednesday morning, senior federal officials said they hadn’t received a formal waiver request from within the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, or a shipping company, the parties the statute traditionally allows to make requests.
DHS can waive the Jones Act to meet a national security threat and lack of U.S.-flagged vessels to meet a shipping need. The department got such a waiver request Monday from 8 members of Congress, including Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat; and José E. Serrano and Nydia M. Velázquez, both Democrats from New York, asking that the restrictions be lifted for a full year to aid in Puerto Rico’s recovery.
A DHS spokesperson on Tuesday said a waiver wasn’t necessary, although DHS officials said Wednesday they’re still considering the underlying issues in the Congressional request. For now, DHS says, the problem is moving supplies within the island, not shipping to the ports. They’re confident recovery efforts will carry on unimpeded without a shipping waiver, noting they’re coordinating with the Department of Defense and FEMA. And the Red Cross told VICE News on Wednesday that the Jones Act “has not been a significant limiting factor” for the agency as it brings aid to the island.
But Sen. John McCain added his voice to those asking for a waiver. In a letter to acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke Tuesday, he argued, “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.”
But DHS officials say the narrow language of the Jones Act, passed nearly 100 years ago, only allows them to consider requests on the basis of ship availability and national security, not the price of goods.