Alaska editorial: Water act waiver is good

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2008

S core one for small commercial fishing boats. President Bush has set a two-year moratorium from permits for discharges under the Clean Water Act for the boats.

Certainly, we all want clean water. But it is silly to require small boats to operate under the same rules as ocean liners. The difference is perhaps half a dozen crewmen, or less, compared to thousands of crew members and passengers aboard the big ships.

The new law calls for a study by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the types, volumes and effects of discharges from all the different commercial motor vessels. The study would be presented to Congress, which would determine from that information whether permanent exemptions were appropriate.

Bush also signed the Clean Boating Act. The act gives recreational marine vessels a permanent exemption to the incidental discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski sponsored the legislation. She pointed out that the 9,700 commercial fishing vessels in Alaska are predominately small boats averaging 36 feet in length. Similar to recreational boats, she said, they operate seasonally or about 90 days each year.

Sen. Ted Stevens co-sponsored the measure. He noted that, under the Clean Boating Act, the owner of a yacht would qualify for an exemption, but a small commercial fisherman wouldn't.

A gillnetter operating a 35-foot boat would have to obtain an additional permit had the Murkowski exemption not been approved by Congress.

The National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems exempts discharges incidental to the normal operation of vessels. However, in 2006, a U.S. District Court in California ruled that the EPA exceeded its authority in allowing those exemptions. It directed the EPA to require permits by Sept. 30, 2008. The EPA has appealed.

No study or documents to date show that incident discharges by recreational or small commercial vessels are harmful to the water. The court case that required the permits focused on studies of invasive species and ballast water. The recreational and small vessels don't have ballast tanks. Few are oceangoing vessels.

The moratorium on the permits is the beginning. The study likely will show that small fishing vessels shouldn't be in the same boat as oceanliners. The next president will get the opportunity to make the moratorium permanent.

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