Nov. 30, 2005 Delegate Donna M. Christensen said Tuesday evening she is still working on getting a waiver to exempt the Virgin Islands from recent changes in Homeland Security regulations that have negatively impacted the local charter boat industry.
During a meeting on the Marlin Deck of American Yacht Harbor, Christensen, addressing close to 100 members of the charter boat industry, said she was still "moving ahead" to address their concerns.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented its passenger information reporting regulation that requires all passenger-carrying commercial vessels to submit passenger and crew information 24 hours prior to arrival and departure between the U.S. and foreign waters.
The rules were phased in over a period of four years. They were made part of the Homeland Security Act, implemented in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York City. The larger vessels, including cruise ships, were the first to face the changes. The rules affecting the smaller vessels went into effect Oct. 4 of this year. Those who don't comply with the regulations face significant fines–$5,000 for the first offense, and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.
However, many local charter boat operators have been facing difficulties in complying with the regulation. (See (See Charter Boat Industry Joins Forces to Fight Onerous Regulations) .
The system known as The Advanced Passenger Information System (AIS), requires that names and other substantial passenger information be registered on a Web site. Given the fluctuations in power, phone and Internet service in the territory, day charter operators have complained that the regulation has placed impossible demands upon the small business owners.
"We're continuing to make the argument that this is an undue burden on this district," Christensen said. "We feel that there are enough other restrictions in place that we should get the waiver."
Christensen had previously written to Homeland Security requesting a waiver, but was told by Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Pamela J. Turner that getting a waiver was unlikely.
Sen. Louis P. Hill asked Christensen Tuesday night if it would be better to work on an amendment to the regulation.
"It's one of the avenues that we're pursuing, but it would be best to get it through a waiver than through an amendment," Christensen said. She added, that an amendment would have to be specific to the territory's situation and not something that could be applied "across-board" for the whole nation. However, it is hard to say what other areas in the U.S. are being impacted in the way the V.I. is by this newly implemented regulation.
Christensen, who is a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said she has some support from her colleagues, though not their full-support.
"It's very hard for them to come out in full-support of this," Christensen said, adding that the committee's main concern is ensuring that the nation's borders are secure.
Christensen said despite this, there has been some progress. The 24 hours requirement has been reduced to 60 minutes prior to departure.
"That has not been codified yet," Christensen said. "But it is in effect, as everyone knows."
On another matter, Christensen said the territory should soon receive a border patrol unit. She said the Homeland Security Committee recently passed legislation to that effect. Christensen also said a representative from Homeland Security would be coming to the territory within the next three weeks to meet with the charter boat industry members to hear their concerns.
William P. Westman, chief of Seaport Operations for Customs in the V.I., said since the implementation of the regulation they have had some non-compliance, but no penalties have been imposed at this time.
"We're trying to educate everybody and get compliance," Westman said.
Westman said the only way the regulation could be changed is through "our elected representatives."
"It's difficult to get a waiver," Westman said. "It's not impossible, but it will take some work."
He suggested that the elected officials express the territory's needs so that an amendment could be passed for the Virgin Islands.
Pamela Wilson, executive director of the V.I. Charteryacht League, told the audience the 26th Legislature recently approved a resolution to petition Congress to amend 33 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 160 to exempt the Virgin Islands from the passenger information reporting requirements. However, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has yet to approve the measure so it can be sent to Congress.
Westman reminded the group that until the requirements were changed, they had to comply with the law. He urged them to form a group among themselves to lobby for their cause. Christensen also encouraged them to join national organizations that could help them in their cause.
Thanks to successful lobbying by the industry on the mainland, ferries are exempt from the regulation. The primary areas affected in the U.S. are the Canadian borders in the northeast and northwest where people commute regularly between the two countries. Otherwise, the V.I. is unique in being an area where passengers travel daily between the U.S. and a foreign country.
Choice Communications was also on hand at the meeting providing the charter boat industry members with information on its new product Clear Choice.
"It is basically a modem, which provides wireless broadband access on the open seas," Kevin Hughes, general sales manager, said, adding the product was exclusive from Choice.
Hughes said his company was negotiating with Wilson for a discount on the product for members of the charter boat industry.
Redundancy of forms and the time needed to fill them out were two of the main complaints of charter boat operators, Hughes said.
He added, "Those are issues that this product will solve."
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