This opinion article was originally published in The Charleston Gazette-Mail on July 22, 2021
By William R. Barr
Earlier this year, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bipartisan resolution on the critical importance of the domestic maritime industry that didn’t get a whole lot of attention. But it sent a clear message on behalf of the people of our great state to the folks in Washington D.C. who would be well-advised to take notice.
Led by Sen. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, and 10 of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, the Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 20 back in March, expressing support for the Jones Act and highlighting its importance to the United States and to West Virginia.
Enacted shortly after World War I, when the need for a strong American maritime industrial base was especially pronounced, the Jones Act is the federal law requiring that vessels moving cargo between U.S. ports be American made, owned and crewed.
Turns out that July, the month when we celebrate our nation’s independence, is a perfect time to draw attention to this statutory foundation of our United States maritime industry; an industry that contributes mightily to keeping our country safe, prosperous and free.
By preventing foreign vessels and operators from transporting cargo on our domestic waterways, the Jones Act ensures that we have a viable and robust U.S. maritime industry, which is critical to our country’s economy and security. U.S. mariners working onboard the U.S.-built and -owned fleet of Jones Act vessels are a key part of the national supply chain, delivering vital commodities that power our homes and businesses, build our infrastructure and feed our families.
The U.S. Maritime Fleet held strong throughout the COVID-19 crisis and kept America’s and West Virginia’s economy moving — who knows how the pandemic would have played out if we’d had to rely on foreign vessels and mariners to do that?
The Jones Act also helps keep us secure. Our armed forces’ ability to conduct strategic sealift and provide humanitarian assistance depends on the pool of reliable and qualified American mariners that the Jones Act makes possible. Jones Act vessels deliver our economic building-blocks and also support our military readiness by delivering fuel, equipment and other supplies to our domestic installations, including in West Virginia.
Outsourcing these responsibilities to foreign companies would greatly compromise our sovereignty and security. Requiring domestic production of our vessels and barges enhances our shipyards’ capability to respond to wartime readiness when military craft production is required.
The Coast Guard’s complex and high-stakes homeland security mission would be much more complicated without the Jones Act. The Coast Guard is responsible for monitoring and securing our nation’s 95,000 miles of coastline and 25,000 miles of inland waterways, and America’s Jones Act mariners are key contributors to this effort, serving as safe and reliable eyes and ears deeply familiar with their operational environments. The absence of foreign operators from our coastal waters, rivers and lakes means that the men and women of the Coast Guard don’t have to channel scarce resources into vetting and tracking foreign vessels and mariners on our domestic waters, where much of our nation’s critical infrastructure is located.
SCR20 also highlights the importance of the Jones Act specifically to West Virginia. As the resolution notes, the Jones Act adds $800 million annually to West Virginia’s economy, in the process supporting over 3,000 jobs in the state and generating nearly $172 million in labor income. These are family-wage jobs that provide opportunities for career advancement and ladders to the middle class.
In the tugboat, towboat and barge segment of American maritime, a recent high school graduate with a strong work ethic can work his or her way up from a trainee deckhand to captain of a towboat in just six or seven years. These jobs build character, and foster a sense of shared purpose while enabling individual independence — a combination that is a quintessential part of the American spirit.
The Jones Act is a federal law governing the entire country, but its positive impact on West Virginia is profound. Within the Amherst Madison family of employees, every job is dependent upon the Jones Act. As we reflect on our independence, Nelson and his colleagues ought to be commended for passing SCR20 and making our voices heard.
William R. Barr is vice president of Safety and Compliance at Amherst Madison Inc., in Charleston.