Sullivan launches new bipartisan effort to clean up oceans

KODIAK — U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a new bill Wednesday aimed at cleaning up the marine debris crisis affecting America’s oceans, shorelines and inland waterways, as well as other coasts across the globe. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., the three senators unveiled new legislation that looks to build on the Save Our Seas Act, a marine debris bill that was sponsored by Sullivan and Whitehouse and signed into law last fall.

Dubbed Save Our Seas 2.0, the new bill seeks to help reduce the creation of plastic waste, find uses for the plastic waste that already exists to prevent it from entering the oceans, and spur innovation into new technologies and ocean-friendly products. The legislation also looks to tackle the problem on a global scale through international engagement and exploring new agreements, including trade deals. 

“As you know, our oceans are littered with waste. Ocean debris hits my state of Alaska particularly hard, having more coastline than the rest of the Lower 48 combined,” Sullivan said at the press conference. “It impacts not just Alaska’s fisheries, but the fisheries of the world.”

An estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. This plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that can enter the marine food chain and wash ashore on even the most remote stretches of coastline. Plastic has been reportedly found in areas as remote as the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the ocean. Sullivan said that this not only affects the health of marine animals, but could potentially be affecting humans. 

“According to the World Economic Forum, if we don’t do anything about this, there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than there will be fish by weight, by 2050,” he said.

Sullivan explained that the new bill entails four key components: domestic clean-up, domestic prevention, enhanced international management and the closing of information gaps through scientific studies.

“We believe that preventing waste from getting into our oceans in the first place, through these four components –– and, importantly, international trade negotiations and assistance –– is a really really important start to solving this problem,” Sullivan said.

The original Save Our Seas Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump in October after being passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate. The bill had a very similar aim but a slightly smaller scope. For example, it gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator the ability to declare severe marine debris events and to authorize funds to assist with cleanup and response. It also reauthorized NOAA’s Marine Debris Program through FY2022, funding the program with $10 million annually for five years. 

The newly introduced bill would build on that foundation. For example, it would establish a new Marine Debris Foundation to support efforts by the Marine Debris Program and a Marine Debris Response Trust Fund, which would operate much like the existing Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

In an interview with the Kodiak Daily Mirror Wednesday, Sullivan elaborated on some of the specifics of the bill. He said that while clean-up efforts are important, prevention should have an equal focus. 

“Building domestic prevention is different from clean-up. It’s building future systems that can work for us to reduce our usage,” Sullivan said.

Beyond building on current programs, the bill aims to introduce new practices. For example, it would order NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency administrators to conduct a joint study on the feasibility of developing a nationwide derelict vessel recycling program, based on the Rhode Island Sea Grant pilot program. The bill would also direct the EPA administrator to develop a strategy, over the course of a year, to improve waste management and recycling infrastructure, specifically to reduce plastic waste into waterways and oceans. 

A separate, but closely related, aspect of the bill is its focus on funding additional studies. Sullivan said the idea is to “fill information gaps.”

“For example, the human health effects from microplastics,” Sullivan said. “These are actually really important information gaps. There are plenty of studies of the health impacts of microplastics with regard to fish –– but we eat fish. And is that starting to negatively impact us?”

Among the bill’s various sections is one that would create a new competition called the Genius Prize for Save Our Seas Innovation, which would be awarded biennially by the Secretary of Commerce. Possible candidates for the award would be the developer of a biodegradable packaging material or the creator of a new marine debris detection and cleanup technology/process.

“We have this whole idea of a Genius Prize, which is looking at the way that innovation can help solve this problem,” Sullivan said. “I was out in Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago, and I heard a rumor of a company that had cracked the code on fully-biodegradable plastic bottles. That’s the kind of thing that this Genius Prize would be for.”

While the bill would fund various programs and efforts at home, Sullivan said that a key component of the proposed legislation is its focus on international engagement. 

“This is a solvable problem,” he said. “When you look at where the challenges are, it’s roughly ten rivers in Asia and Africa that constitute up to, certain studies say, 90% of all the plastics in the oceans globally.” 

Sullivan said the bill would authorize certain federal agencies to take action beyond their current jurisdictions. 

“Particularly the EPA and NOAA, don’t always have the authority to do a lot internationally. This bill gives them that statutory authority –– which they asked for,” Sullivan said. 

He also noted that the Trump Administration continues to formulate international trade agreements. Sullivan is hopeful that some of these deals may include plastic-waste-reduction provisions. 

“For example, we’re looking at a trade agreement with the Philippines,” he said. “In the fall, Senator Whitehouse and I talked to the President about trying to ensure that, if we do a trade agreement with the Philippines, that there be a section on ocean debris. I’m not sure that the Philippines would love that, but I think if we insist on that, it’s a good way to use the leverage of people wanting access to the US market.

“The hope is that the countries where most of the pollution comes from can get their systems more advanced, so they don’t push all this pollution into the rivers.”

The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act is cosponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tom Carper (D-DE), Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Murkowski lauded the new bill, offering her full support for the proposed legislation.

“America has over 95,000 miles of shoreline, and Alaska makes up around 49,000 miles of it. With unprecedented amounts of debris washing up on our shores—impacting wildlife, our environment and the many Alaskans who depend on our ocean resources—there is understandably widespread concern,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski via a news release. “Building on my previous legislative efforts to keep our oceans clean and our coastal communities safe, I’m proud to join this legislation which will ensure a more robust U.S. response to the marine debris that is polluting our oceans and shorelines.”

Sullivan said he hopes that the bill will get signed into law by the end of the year, though noted that, due to the bill’s comprehensive and complex nature, it has to go before three different committees.

“We’re going to press on it,” he said. “It’s got strong bipartisan support.” 

Source: Kodiak Daily Mirror