Federal Ban on Foreign Sand Rubs Florida the Wrong Way

Hurricane Irma sheds light on the hidden costs of yet another protectionist measure.


Andy Brown/Dreamstime

Despite what certain economists and Federal Reserve officials say, the loss of life and property in hurricanes does not stimulate the economy. And they are never a winner for federal taxpayers, Congress having appropriated $36.5 billion for disaster relief in October alone.

The one thing that can be said for hurricanes however, is their uncanny ability to highlight the normally hidden cost of protectionist policies. Take, for instance, sand.

That's right, sand.

Thanks to an obscure provision of the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, the federal government and the South Florida communities hit by Hurricane Irma have been prohibited from procuring foreign sand for their beach replenishment projects until all other feasible domestic sources have been tapped.

Foreign companies have offered to contain these costs by importing white sand from the Bahamas by barge at as little as half the cost of domestic sand. But thanks to current federal law, these battered communities have had to tell these willing sand suppliers to take a hike, hamstringing local recovery efforts.

Irma washed away 170,000 cubic yards of sandy beaches in Miami-Dade County. North Myrtle Beach reported losing 200,000 cubic yards of its sand. Garden City and Surfside collectively lost 252,000 cubic yards of sand.

Local officials estimate it will cost $6 million for Garden City and Surfside to restore their beaches. As recently as August, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $8.6 million to ship in 140,000 cubic yards of sand to Miami-Dade, and while likely have to so again thanks to Irma.

"The fact that we're not allowed to get a fair and open competition for sand is un-American. It's just so important for the economy of South Florida," said Paul Voight, a Miami-Dade official working to restore the county's coastline to the Miami Herald.

Back in February, Rep. Lois Frankel (D – Fla.) introduced a bill that would undo the prohibition on importing foreign sand. Despite attracting the support of both Florida senators and its entire South Florida House delegation, the bill has yet to make it out of committee.

A similar bill submitted in September of last year also went nowhere, thanks in part to the pro-protectionist lobbying of domestic sand dredging companies.

That's bad news for the residents of South Florida who will have to wait longer and spend more money to bring their communities back to their pre-Irma glory. It's also bad news for taxpayers everywhere, as the federal government normally picks up a half to two-thirds of the cost of these beach replenishment projects.

The unusually active hurricane season washed away the cover for other protectionist gambits. Reason's Scott Shackford demonstrated how the Jones Act—which requires that ships traveling between American ports be built, owned, and operated by Americans—has jacked up the price of getting supplies to Puerto Rico after Maria, contributing to the ongoing suffering there.

The costs of Trump's tariffs on Canadian lumber have become more apparent as communities in Texas and Florida been forced to pay artificially inflated prices to repair and rebuild their storm shattered homes.

Hurricane Irma washed away much of Florida's sand barriers. Unfortunately, the storm left damaging trade barriers intact.