If NOAA ships lift Newport’s spirits, their hopes will be dashed soon enough but not before $30 plus million is spent on a pipe dream. I’ve watched the NOAA drama play out for the last year through the lens of NOAA engineers close to the crazy decision to move the Marine Operations Center-Pacific, a large vessel maintenance function, to a place with no marine infrastructure to support it. This guarantees added cost to all taxpayers, and little payback to Newport despite their wishful thinking. The “175 family wage jobs” used to sell the proposal as an economic development project is greatly exaggerated. Counting all the NOAA officers, civilian engineers and technicians who are the permanent MOC-P staff, the real number is 77 at best. The rest are wage mariners and scientists who are unlikely to take up permanent residence in Newport because their ships will only be tied to the new expensive and oversized wharf a few months of the year. Most of the time the ships are at sea or in a drydock for major repairs in Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, or even San Francisco because that’s where the real shipyards are, not in Newport. The majority of the scientists are also in Seattle at the Western Regional Center at Sand Point.
A little known fact is that the Oregon taxpayers are subsidizing NOAA to the tune of $19.5 million to build
And—surprise—NOAA Corps officers and mariners who may move there don’t have to pay Oregon income tax. They can call any state their Home of Record and avoid paying state income tax this way.
If this seems like a terrible hoax, it gets worse with a closer look at the reasoning behind the move and the “circle the wagons” mentality NOAA officials took when Senator Maria Cantwell and two independent watchdog agencies asked questions about NOAA’s decision to build in a floodplain and reject offers by the General Services Administration to use existing federal buildings and waterfront facilities in Seattle rather than spend millions on new buildings and piers in Newport.
On May 26th the Office of the Inspector General sent to NOAA a memo essentially saying STOP until we sort this mess out.
Instead, NOAA joined a party June 6th at the Port of Newport to show off its newest ship the Bell M Shimada which arguably should have been using its high tech multibeam sonar to track the Great Gulf Oil Slick instead of making PR appearances in Newport.
Why should we care about this? It’s just a few ships leaving Seattle, and we’re just being sore losers. Maybe, but the NOAA move raises an even greater question —what is the environmental price for moving ships to Newport? The Newport boomers see dollar signs; they want growth. It’s Deus Ex NOAA. Yet why would NOAA, whose Fisheries Service branch, “is dedicated to the stewardship of living marine resources through science-based conservation and management, and the promotion of healthy ecosystems” chose to build a huge 64,000 SF wharf in their own recently designated Critical Fish Habitat for the endangered green sturgeon?
The recently filed Oregon State Lands permit application on the project goes on for pages describing how critically important eelgrass habitat is for a dozen species of fish in Yaquina Bay and how difficult eelgrass mitigation is and how they searched the entire area and could only find three disconnected little spots to attempt the “restoration” of eelgrass. Yikes, how about NOT destroying it in the first place. Conservation before mitigation! As local officials clamp down on permits for any new habitat shading dock, you would expect NOAA to model better behavior.
The permit’s spin is that the mitigation eelgrass will be “better” than the existing resources (if it gets established!). This sounds like destroying the village in order to save it. If there is a compelling reason to plant more eelgrass in Yaquina Bay, NOAA should just do it, but not hold eelgrass restoration goals hostage
NOAA declares that there is simply no other practicable alternative and they simply MUST build all new facilities in Newport, but this is absurd.
Since the fire on their Lake Union pier in 2006, the Marine Operations Center-Pacific has managed to do its work and homeport its ships in the Seattle area using piers the federal government already owns at Sand Point WRC on Lake Washington, and Federal Center South on the Duwamish. The environmentally responsible, sustainable and economical choice would be to continue this, not demand all new facilities elsewhere. But NOAA officials in DC and locally ignored this and tried to justify their action saying that back in the 1970s citizens opposed a NOAA expansion at the Sand Point. Problem is NOAA also has letters in their file from 2010 from the same citizens welcoming NOAA to stay at Sand Point and having made no complaints about two ships docked there since 2006.
At a time when President Obama is asking all federal agencies to cut back, NOAA is insisting on all new digs for ships that will only be tied up at the “homeport” a fraction of the year.
The Port of Newport and NOAA appear to be trying to box in the Corps of Engineers by going ahead with upland construction even before the formal public notice period on the permit. There’s still a chance that the Corps will see the light and deny the permit because by their own rules, they must only approve the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” and they are not limited to NOAA or Newport’s definition of what that should be.