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Cantwell sustains outcry

Posted: Friday, Jun 25th, 2010

Construction crews were busy smoothing a concrete foundation at the NOAA homeport project site in South Beach Wednesday afternoon. At almost the same time, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was questioning Commerce Secretary Gary Locke about the decision to continue in light of flaws in the process found by Inspector General Todd Zinser. Cantwell also mentioned the possibility of asking Congress to stop funding for the project. (Photo by Terry Dillman)

Senator alludes to blocking federal funds for NOAA project

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) escalated the war of words over moving the NOAA Pacific research fleet to Newport by sharply criticizing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke during a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Cantwell reiterated prior claims that the ongoing construction in Newport is “a waste of taxpayer dollars” by an agency that failed its due diligence in the selection process. She upped the stakes by raising the possibility of asking Congress to halt funding for the project.

Tensions have risen steadily between local, state, and federal officials in Oregon and Washington since NOAA officials announced the selection of Newport over three sites in Washington sites - Bellingham, Port Townsend, and the current Lake Union (Seattle) facility - in August 2009.

Washington’s junior senator has actively led the protest.

Full report pending

The complete report based on an investigation Cantwell requested in March by Commerce Department Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser isn’t due out until next week. But Cantwell used information from a five-page, May 26 memo from Zinser to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenko to question Locke as an aside during the finance committee’s hearing on U.S. trade policies with China.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Cantwell said Zinser’s review validates her belief that Newport’s selection was improper and deserves nullification. “Constructing a new home port in Oregon for oceanic research vessels wastes taxpayer and ignores an Inspector General’s warning that the government failed to consider cheaper, government-owned alternatives,” the release stated.

Cantwell chairs the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee, which oversees NOAA. She and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, requested the IG investigation in March.

In his May 26 memo to Lubchenko, Zinser said they identified an issue “that warrants higher-level review by NOAA before it finalizes its examination of practicable alternatives.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) upheld a protest filed in late August 2009 by the Port of Bellingham, issuing a decision in early December 2009 recommending that NOAA conduct an analysis of practicable alternatives to the Newport offer. While GAO upheld the protest, it did not overrule NOAA’s selection of the Newport site. In their Jan. 29 response to GAO, NOAA officials said they expected to complete the analysis and related actions by May 28.

NOAA announced on June 2 that no practical alternative existed, just prior to an official June 3 groundbreaking at the five-acre project site in South Beach.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was among the cast of local, state, and federal officials on hand. “You won it the way you ought to do it - free and fair,” he told the crowd. Oregon’s federal delegation also said their legal eagles indicated that the pending IG report would change nothing.

“This inspector general issue is going nowhere,” Wyden said. “He has no authority to overturn the NOAA decision, or to change or modify the contract. All he can do is make non-binding recommendations.”

Cantwell disagrees, and seemingly expects the situation to change in the wake of Zinser’s findings. She pressed Locke about the problems with the process indicated in the IG’s memo.

“Specifically, based on our review, we believe that NOAA should examine whether it sufficiently complied with the requirement to consider existing federal facilities before pursuing a new lease acquisition,” Zinser stated. “In our view, NOAA’s examination of these issues related to its consideration of other federal facilities will ensure that the final decision regarding practicable alternatives to Newport is thorough and well-documented. Whatever conclusion NOAA reaches, it should carefully examine and document all pertinent factors, especially those that we have highlighted.”

Cantwell said NOAA “clearly ignored the IG’s warning and moved forward anyway,” a decision she considers reckless and feckless.

At the finance committee hearing, Locke acknowledged that acquisition processes within NOAA and throughout other Department Commerce agencies “need a thorough review,” noting that he has asked for a separate outside review by acquisition experts from other federal agencies and the private sector. Although he considered the underlying findings “troubling,” he said that “the defects were not sufficient” to overturn the Newport decision.

If the project continues in the face of these official warnings, Cantwell said the next step is a potential figurative blockade of Yaquina Bay.

“I don’t think the Inspector General has said for you to go ahead. I have a letter here from them saying that you shouldn’t go ahead,” Cantwell told Locke at the close of their exchange. “When the Inspector General says an agency shouldn’t be taking action and are costing taxpayers money because they haven’t done a thorough review, the next step is usually Congress gets involved in saying you shouldn’t allocate money to such projects.”

Construction work continued at the NOAA project site this week.

Attempts by the News-Times to contact local and other federal officials for comment prior to press time were unsuccessful.

Terry Dillman is the assistant editor of the News-Times. Contact him at 541-265-8571, ext 225, or terrydillman@newportnewstimes.com.

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