ABC enlists lawmakers to fight boat permits

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Industry cheered by response, but stresses need for speed as Sept. 30 deadline approaches

With a Sept. 30 deadline looming to resolve the national boat permitting issue, attendees at this year’s American Boating Congress heralded this as the top priority for the boating industry.

About 150 people attended a panel discussion on the subject April 28 in advance of visits the following day to Capitol Hill. It was hoped that marine industry leaders would lobby lawmakers to co-sponsor legislation that would restore a permit exemption for recreational boats.

That hope was realized.

A number of congressional leaders signed up to co-sponsor bills that could provide legislative relief: the Recreational Boating Act of 2007 (H.R. 2550) and the Clean Boating Act of 2008 (S. 2766).

As of May 9, the Senate’s version of the bill had 31 co-sponsors, including original sponsor Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. The House version had 91 co-sponsors, including original sponsor Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi.

Four senators signed on to the bill either during or after ABC, and 10 congressmen or women signed on to their bill either during or after ABC.

“What we’re seeing is a fairly immediate bump in the co-sponsors of both the bills, and I would attribute that straight back to ABC activity,” said Margaret Podlich, vice president of government affairs for BoatU.S. “I think it did have an immediate impact.”

“But now the issue is the urgency of resolving this problem before September,” said Mat Dunn, manager of natural resources and economic policy for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The House bill is a simple restoration of the exemption, said Dunn.

The Senate bill would permanently, immediately and fully restore the permit exemption and expands the definition of a recreational vessel to include small charter fishing boats.

The Senate’s version also includes a section that would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard to review whether certain incidental discharges from recreational boats should have some sort of best-management practices. It outlines a three-year process to determine some rules, though a permit would not be part of it.

This additional provision, Dunn noted, “makes it abundantly clear that this was not an attempt by the boating community or the recreational marine industry to roll back environmental protection because, obviously, clean and healthy waterways are essential to an enjoyable boating experience, and we wanted to get that message out loud and clear.

“We expect the Senate will move forward first and, from the Senate’s actions, the House will follow,” Dunn added. Given the Memorial Day and August recesses there are only about seven weeks left on the legislative calendar, he pointed out.

The permitting issue stems from a 2006 federal court decision that would require all vessels that discharge ballast water and other operational discharges to obtain a permit. Since the early 1970s, recreational marine vessels had been exempt from this provision and the subsequent need to obtain a permit.

In its decision, the court said regulating the discharge of ballast water should alleviate the problem of invasive species entering the nation’s waterways. The inclusion of recreational boats in the ruling was an inadvertent byproduct of the court’s decision.

In addition to pending legislative relief, industry leaders also are waiting for a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on exempting recreational boats from the permit requirement. The court heard oral arguments in August 2007, but has not yet ruled on the issue.

“We don’t know when they will,” Dunn said. “They’re not bound by any sort of deadline. It could be any day.”

Also, he said, the EPA is in the process of developing a permitting system in case no relief is in place in September. The comment period on the issue closed in August and the EPA has not yet released its plan.

Meanwhile, the NMMA, BoatU.S., the Marine Retailers Association of America and other industry organizations have been lobbying diligently to have the permit exemption reinstated. They argue there would be a significant negative impact on the industry if no action is taken.

Podlich noted it would be easy for Congress not to take any action in an election year; all the more reason why it is important to keep the pressure on Congress.

“Because we have to have the legislation get rid of the permit requirement, every boater, every angler, every manufacturer, every person connected to boating somehow … every single person we can find; we have to activate them or energize them and have them talk to their members of Congress,” said Podlich. “To me, this is going to make or break this issue.

“We’re not close to the finish line yet,” she added. “The boating community, every person in the boating community, needs to put some energy into this to fix it.”

Visit www.boatblue.org for information on how to get in touch with lawmakers.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue.

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