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Legislator tries to dry up NOAA homeport funding

Modified: Wednesday, Feb 23rd, 2011


U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) looks over the construction site at the NOAA homeport project during a tour in February 2010. Late last week, Schrader helped scuttle an amendment introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) attempting to prevent NOAA from using its funding to move the agency’s Pacific research fleet from Seattle’s Lake Union to Yaquina Bay. The amendment failed by a 333-91 margin. (File photo by Terry Dillman)


A year ago, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) joined fellow representatives and senators from Washington’s federal delegation in signing a letter questioning the decision by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to move its Pacific research fleet from Seattle’s Lake Union to Newport’s Yaquina Bay.

McDermott took another tack late last week, when - as part of the ongoing, highly confrontational federal budget process - he attempted to scuttle NOAA’s looming move by introducing an amendment to prevent the agency from using its funding to underwrite the costs of transferring the Marine Operations Center-Pacific (MOC-P). Opponents torpedoed it by a 333-91 margin on Feb. 18.

McDermott’s amendment was among hundreds introduced by various representatives from throughout the nation as part of a House spending bill that also featured amendments to keep NOAA from funding climate science research, a key component of the overall investigative efforts conducted aboard NOAA research vessels. With a possible government shutdown looming, and an emphasis on spending cuts, a number of representatives - McDermott among them - figured to cash in on the sentiment for freezing and cutting government spending as the nation’s economic recovery continues to flounder.

Best choice

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) immediately led the opposition to McDermott’s proposed amendment on the House floor, defending the fleet’s move and the process through which NOAA officials selected Newport, and outlining the potential financial consequences of politically blockading the Pacific research fleet, which - among other things - gathers data to produce navigational charts, survey fish stocks, and maintain instruments that support tsunami warnings, weather forecasts, and climate research.

“If this amendment were enacted, NOAA would face termination liabilities in excess of $50 million, and their ability to conduct mission critical activities in the Pacific would be in jeopardy,” Schrader stated, noting that when NOAA’s current contract expires in June, the agency “would have no authority, legal or otherwise, to mobilize its Pacific fleet. It would be dead in the water.”

NOAA opted for Newport following a competitive selection process that Schrader considered comprehensive, transparent, and legitimate, despite ongoing squawks from Washington lawmakers.

“The facts are clear: NOAA made this decision based on the merits, not politics,” he noted. “Newport was the superior choice for the taxpayers and the agency’s mission in the Pacific. The Newport proposal was the highest technically rated and the lowest priced of all proposals, including the offer from the current location.”

In fact, ongoing problems at the Lake Union site prompted NOAA officials to launch the competitive bidding process to find a place to relocate the Pacific research fleet. Project managers say the effort is ahead of schedule, with a two-story administration building, warehouse, workshop, boat shed, pier with berths for six ships, and a small boat dock in place.

Schrader said local and state funding has underwritten all work so far, with no cost to the federal government. The Newport site, he added, offers other cost offsets and advantages that make it “the most cost-effective way to maintain and operate” NOAA’s Pacific fleet, and provides the federal government.

It’s closer to the ocean, reducing transit costs

Last hurrah?

With so much at stake financially and politically, Oregon’s federal lawmakers have staunchly defended the NOAA selection even as McDermott and other Washington lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the 2009 NOAA decision to sign a 20-year, $52-million lease with the Port of Newport. During a Feb. 19, 2010 visit to the Port of Newport’s construction site for the NOAA Pacific fleet homeport project, Schrader said he was “so impressed with what’s going on here.”

What didn’t impress him were continued efforts by the state of Washington’s federal delegation to scuttle the project, especially their Feb. 17, 2010 letter asking NOAA and Commerce Department officials to halt construction while the agency performed a reassessment of its decision recommended by a federal watchdog agency.

“Any time an agency makes a decision of this magnitude, particularly when jobs are at stake in an economy fraught with hardship, it is natural that a congressional delegation fiercely advocate for the best interest of its state,” they wrote in a Feb. 19, 2010 letter. “It is our strong belief, however, that it would be entirely inappropriate for such advocacy to deter NOAA from the path of implementing a fair process, or to cause a waste of taxpayer funds, unnecessary bureaucratic delays, or the siting of a fleet at a far less suitable facility.”

They said NOAA’s outlined plan to comply with a decision from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) should proceed “without political interference.”

They noted that the Port of Newport was working diligently to meet obligations under a 20-year lease agreement signed in August 2009.

“To be clear, in no way did the GAO’s decision require or even suggest that work in progress should cease,” the letter stated. “Breaching the contract, with a goal of siting the fleet in a higher-cost, less-suitable port would clearly be the wrong choice.”

In their letter, the Oregon delegation noted that any other port would “require major sacrifices by NOAA on quality and cost” (including “substantial taxpayer liabilities” from a breach of the lease agreement), and they expect everyone involved to respect the review process now under way.

“With a project of this magnitude, and its complexity and permanency, we need to make sure we do everything right,” Schrader said last year. “This project is obviously technically superior - the amount of work they’ve put in, the research, the community effort. We left Washington in the dust. They’re trying to play catch-up, and they realize it’s too little, too late on their part.”

He fired another salvo last week after McDermott’s amendment broadside.

“We’re always nervous about these things, especially at budget time,” Port of Newport General Manager Don Mann told the News-Times Tuesday afternoon. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see.”

With Oregon’s delegation watching the situation closely - serving as escorts to fend off potential political pirates, as it were - they can, he noted, breathe a little easier as they move toward the May completion of the project, and handing over the keys to NOAA officials July1.



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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