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Century-old law preventing fuel ship from docking in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico

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AFP via Getty Images

A ship carrying much-needed diesel fuel has been unable to dock in Puerto Rico as it awaits authorization from U.S. officials, reports NBC News.

The ship is not permitted to dock because of the Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which states that goods shipped between American ports must be carried only by ships built primarily in the United States. The ships must also be crewed and owned by U.S. citizens.

This means that a foreign ship destined for Puerto Rico would first have to make port in the mainland United States and change crews, explains NBC News. Because the fuel ship is not U.S.-owned, it has been idling off the coast of Puerto Rico awaiting a decision by the Biden administration on whether it will waive the Jones Act and allow the ship to dock, reports the Washington Post.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, said that he has asked U.S. authorities to intervene. “I have requested the personal intervention of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security so that a ship contracted by a private supplier, loaded with diesel and located near Puerto Rico, can unload the fuel for the benefit of our people,” Pierluisi wrote in a tweet.

According to the Washington Post, White House officials said the Biden administration does not have the authority to simply suspend the Jones Act in Puerto Rico.

The Jones Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson two years after the end of World War I on the grounds of national security. Its proponents argued that the U.S. shipping industry needed to be supported against foreign, and potentially hostile, competition. Free-trade advocates such as the Cato Institute have called repeatedly for its repeal.

The American Maritime Partnership — a group that represents unions covered by the Jones Act — wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas explaining why the Jones Act should not be waived in the current situation. “There is no indication that American shipping capacity is insufficient to meet demand, and, therefore, no justification for a waiver of the Jones Act,” said the group’s president, Ku’uhaku Park.

The Department of Homeland Security told NBC News in a statement, “The Department of Homeland Security will continue to examine individual requests for Jones Act waivers on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the Maritime Administration, Departments of Defense, and Energy.”

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