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DHS holds off on lifting restrictions for aid shipments to Puerto Rico

Sept. 27 (UPI) — The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday it has not yet waived shipping restrictions that would help get gasoline and other vital supplies to Puerto Rico, despite pressure form Congress.

The U.S. Jones Act, which was suspended after hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the mainland United States, limits shipping between coasts to U.S.-flagged vessels. That includes crude oil.

Acting Homeland Security chief Elaine Duke said Wednesday at the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that it has not rejected a waiver.

Duke initially said there were no requests.

“We have the [Jones Act waiver] requests from Congress, so if I misspoke I apologize,” Duke said. “We have the letters from Congress, those go to Customs and Border Protection. We do not have any waiver requests from industry, which is where they typically come from.”

Customs and Border Protection as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency are part of DHS.

“We don’t know of fuel shortages on the island of Puerto Rico,” Duke said. “The challenge to us today is getting it distributed.”

The Homeland Security Department reiterated Duke’s remarks in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said about 97 percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents are without power one week after the hurricane and about half don’t have running water. He told CNN he expects a waiver to Jones Act.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, also devastated by hurricanes, has a permanent waiver to the Jones Act.

“In recent weeks, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria have placed the spotlight on natural disasters,” Duke said in her prepared remarks to the Senate. “With FEMA’s leadership, our department and the whole of the federal government have come together to respond to these crises, and I am impressed with the professionalism I have witnessed. But the challenges in places like Puerto Rico are evidence that there is a long road ahead. To those who have been caught up in the disasters let me say this: I promise to do everything in my power to bring relief. And we will stand with you-side-by-side-in the weeks, months, and years to come.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sent a letter to Duke on Tuesday urging her department to waive the act.

“These emergency waivers have been valuable to speed up recovery efforts in the impacted regions,” McCain wrote. “However, I am very concerned by the Department’s decision not to waive the Jones Act for current relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis following Hurricane Maria. It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.”

McCain introduced legislation to repeal the Jones Act in the Senate in 2010 and recently this July.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., is leading House members seeking to suspend the restrictions for Puerto Rico. She also wrote a letter to DHS.

“When Hurricane Maria savaged the Island, many of our deepest fears were realized,” Velázquez said Monday. “With a power grid that already faced serious infrastructure problems, the storm has shut down power for the entirety of Puerto Rico.”

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