House Passes Legislation for dredging and other harbor maintenance

WASHINGTON — Harbors along the East Coast and Great Lakes could get more money for dredging in preparation for larger cargo ships that will use the expanded Panama Canal by 2015.

Separate water resources bills passed by the House and Senate recommend — but don’t require — that dredging projects receive a higher percentage of revenue collected from shippers through the federal Harbor Maintenance Tax. The trust fund currently has a surplus of about $700 million.

The House voted 417-3 last week to approve its version of the authorizing legislation. The Senate approved a somewhat different version on an 83-14 vote in May.

Both bills treat the Great Lakes as a unified navigation system, which members of the New York congressional delegation say would help ports such as Rochester, Buffalo and Oswego better compete for federal money for harbor dredging and maintenance.

Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter of Fairport, who pushed for the Great Lakes language, predicted the change in designation would “drive economic growth” in the region. Republican Rep. Richard Hanna of Oneida County said it would encourage Great Lakes ports “to work collaboratively.”

Both bills also would renew a federal dam safety inspection program that’s particularly important in New York because Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 caused breaches and first-ever spillovers at some dams.

Fourteen of New York’s 396 high-hazard dams, which pose a risk to the lives of people downstream if they should fail, did not have current emergency action plans for evacuating areas downstream, state environmental conservation officials reported earlier this year.

Democratic Rep. Sean Maloney of Cold Spring, who worked with Republican Rep. Chris Gibson of Kinderhook to craft the section of the bill renewing the dam safety inspection program, said the amount of funding available for inspections will depend on final House-Senate negotiations.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also pushed to include the dam safety program in the Senate version of the bill, which would authorize $12.5 million in spending on dam inspections nationally.

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