Red Hill closure reignites debate over Jones Act

Relaxing a 100-year-old maritime rule could save the Department of Defense millions of dollars, but some are questioning why the rule is needed at all.

Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to waive the Jones Act as the U.S. Navy closes the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii.

The Navy agreed to close the facility after fuel leaked into the water supply in 2021, sickening nearby residents and forcing some from their homes.

The Jones Act requires U.S. ships carrying U.S. cargo to only be ships built in the U.S.

Moving the fuel from Red Hill using international ships would cost $36 million, but $66 million using Jones Act tankers, Case said to Mayorkas in a letter.

"It is critical to DoD and the people of Hawai'i that an advance waiver from the Jones Act and government-impelled cargo requirement be issued to provide DoD with the fullest possible range of options to contract internationally available fuel tanker transport on a predictable and cost-effective basis," Case said in a statement. "To allow for the full range of options as to timing and sequencing of defueling, which require contracting to be complete by July 2023, this waiver should be issued now."

Keli'i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroots Institute of Hawaii, said in an email distributed Sunday that he backs Case's request. But he said the issue raises the issue of if the Jones Act is needed at all.

"We know that it hurts Hawaii and other parts of the U.S economically, has failed to ensure a strong shipbuilding industry and merchant marine, and has put our national security at risk," Akina said. "Today it is hindering reasonable and cost-effective efforts to resolve the Red Hill crisis. What will be the next disaster that requires a Jones Act waiver?"

Case has also questioned the validity of the Jones Act previously. He introduced a package of bills in 2021 that he said would reform the act and reduce the costs of goods in the Aloha state.

The Jones Act costs Hawaii $1.2 billion, the Grassroots Institute said in a 2020 report.

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