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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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Opinion

Congress should repeal the Foreign Dredge Act

Apr 10

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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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The collapse of Baltimore’s Key Bridge presents challenges for cleanup and construction crews who rely on dredging vessels to complete their work. That’s partly because of the Foreign Dredge Act, a 1906 law that prohibits foreign-made dredging vessels. Congress is now introducing a measure to revise parts of that law, although previous attempts to do so have failed.

Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence says the Foreign Dredge Act has only worked to protect inferior U.S. dredging vessels against their superior European counterparts while also driving up prices. She recommends revising or repealing the law.

The Foreign Dredge Act, which was passed, mind you, more than a century ago, forbids dredges built in foreign countries from operating in the U.S. Dredges are those huge vessels that remove debris from waterways [and] dredges also help build the waterways. So basically, a dredge is what is needed right now to remove the Key Bridge and that huge cargo vessel from the Baltimore river. But under the act, a foreign-built dredge is subject to immediate forfeiture, which means we are left with only American-built dredges.

Now, why is that a problem, you may ask? Well, as you may imagine, because the Foreign Dredge Act shields American companies from international competition when it comes to dredges, the U.S. fleet of dredges are substandard, and that’s putting it nicely.

The U.S. has 16 vessels, compared to 87 in Europe. A recent study from Tulane University found that the combined capacity of the U.S. fleet is less than a single EU dredging vessel. Translation: All the dredges in the United States put together couldn’t do what just one dredge in Europe could do. In fact, the largest U.S. dredge has a capacity that would rank only 31st in Europe. Our dredges aren’t only small, with little capacity, and they are few, mind you, but they’re also old. The Army Corps of Engineers still uses dredges built during World War II. That means U.S. dredges are fewer, smaller, slower, and less efficient than their foreign counterparts.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge shocked us all. Who expected a cargo vessel the length of the Eiffel Tower to slam into a major Baltimore bridge and block one of the U.S.’s most significant trade waterways? Now, fortunately, the Biden administration was quick to act. They pledged to rebuild the bridge, moving heaven and earth to do so as quickly as possible. President Biden wants to avoid any kind of rippling impact on our economy, keeping those access to goods and trade, cars, everything, open. That’s a great idea. But if Biden is really serious about rebuilding the Key Bridge quickly, he won’t just throw federal funds at reopening access to the Port of Baltimore. Rather, he’ll push Congress to repeal the antiquated protectionist law that is the Foreign Dredge Act of 1906. This act slows the recovery of the Port of Baltimore, compromising the employment of at least 15,000 blue-collar workers.

 

The Foreign Dredge Act, which was passed, mind you, more than a century ago, forbids dredges built in foreign countries from operating in the U.S. Dredges are those huge vessels that remove debris from waterways [and] dredges also help build the waterways. So basically, a dredge is what is needed right now to remove the Key Bridge and that huge cargo vessel from the Baltimore river. But under the act, a foreign-built dredge is subject to immediate forfeiture, which means we are left with only American-built dredges. Now, why is that a problem, you may ask? Well, as you may imagine, because the Foreign Dredge Act shields American companies from international competition when it comes to dredges, the U.S. fleet of dredges are substandard, and that’s putting it nicely.

 

The U.S. has 16 vessels, compared to 87 in Europe. A recent study from Tulane University found that the combined capacity of the U.S. fleet is less than a single EU dredging vessel. Translation: All the dredges in the United States put together couldn’t do what just one dredge in Europe could do. In fact, the largest U.S. dredge has a capacity that would rank only 31st in Europe. Our dredges aren’t only small, with little capacity, and they are few, mind you, but they’re also old. The Army Corps of Engineers still uses dredges built during World War Two. That means U.S. dredges are fewer, smaller, slower, and less efficient than their foreign counterparts.

 

But don’t let these infirmities lead you to believe that US dredges are cheap, no. With the limited competition out there in the U.S., not only are dredge makers disincentivized from making a better product, but they’re also incentivized to jack up the prices. The foreign dredge act is hurting the United States. It was passed forever ago to protect and foster Americans shipbuilding industry without foreign competition. But that was also back before the Titanic was built. The act is unnecessary now, all it does is keep the United States inferior while funneling more of our tax dollars to substandard dredge construction companies here in the States. We the People deserve our ports and waterways to function as efficiently as possible, as this is critical for distributing goods and enabling trade throughout the US economy. Instead, we have a draconian act that operates to the detriment of taxpayers, consumers the environment, and it’s currently holding Baltimore back. The problematic nature of the foreign dredge act is also something that’s well known in Congress bills to reform or eliminate us dredging protectionism were introduced in late 2021 2022 and also 2023. Yet those bills did not receive much support at all. But what about now, now that the nation needs dredges that do the job and do so quickly? If Biden truly wants to build back Baltimore better, then he’ll push Congress to repeal the foreign dredge act, and to put us ports and waterways into the 21st century.

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