NOAA’s Choice —Greenbacks or Green Sturgeon?

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

NOAA Ships at WRC in Lake Washington, 2009. No Complaints from the neighbors. Photo courtesy of Irene Wall.
new digs in a NOAA-designated Tsunami risk zone!

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.
Environmental Roulette
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 Ship at Federal Center South, June 2010. Plenty of room here.
to a new wharf.
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.

  • NOAA Peasant

    An old Chinese saying goes “if you believe everything you read, then stop reading.” This can be applied to the ecstatic press clippings from Oregon, beginning with the Newport News Times. First of all, majority of the 175 jobs mentioned by the Oregon media are already staffed which is never mentioned. There will be a people who will not move to Newport. Some of the jobs may become vacant or when the government is in a money saving mode as it is now, abolish those slots altogether or transfer the activity elsewhere. Nevertheless, applicants outside the Newport area would likely fill in those positions that remain vacant, providing they want to move to a small town with nil activities and opportunities.

    First the economic impact was nineteen million a year and now it is twenty! Where did the numbers come from and with zero infrastructure support and established vendors in the Seattle area or out of state, how is one activity going to spend that much money where there are no businesses or facilities to patronize? With the fleet away from “home port” much of the year, the restaurants and taverns may not see much business. Reports now indicate six ships will be relocated to Newport from the initial four. Local community college is holding seminars on how to do business with the federal government and predictions of influx of people to Lincoln County ready to take up many “welding” jobs that may open up once the fleet moves in.

    Everyone has the right to dream but what I read from Newport and the Oregon media is beyond delusional. The honeymoon could fade even before the ribbon cutting ceremonies are scheduled to take place sometime next year. It seems local infrastructures in Lincoln County has been taking a hit in county and cities from firefighters being laid off to not enough money to hire additional police officers. County employees face layoffs and crime is increasing way above the national average for a town that size. To add another handicap, a primary school was closed down due to budget constraints but the spin was that Newport was a retirement community so the numbers of children who attend school were lacking to keep it open. Yet the State of Oregon can come up with $19.5 million dollars to subsidize another government agency while letting much of it’s infrastructure rot. NOAA is a welfare recipient and prime example of corporate welfare run amok.

    Many marine center employees are assigned to ships home ported in Hawaii or Alaska. Have you seen the hideous airport along with its puddle jumper airlines and schedules not fit in supporting NOAA? It is the type of support and infrastructure that I would expect to find in an undeveloped country.

    All I could say is let Newport gloat now because when reality sets in, another adage applies, “if it is too good to be true, then it probably is.”

  • Dick Palatine

    What do you get when a decision is made when those involved have no stake in the outcome, and very little subject matter knowledge, add a large dash of consultanting fees, pointless Green Design Goals, and you get a decision to create a “Marine Center With No Ships”, such as will be a home port in Newport Oregon.

    Not only will it be a “Marine Center With No Ships” it will be depleted of the core ship repair employees who will be following the ships to places like: Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Oakland, Ketchikan, and San Diego… where the ships will go for repairs.

    It’s too bad that those who made this decision will not be the ones living with it, if it goes through.

    Reckon the laid up ships, like JORDAN could be parked in Newport to give the appearance of an active marine center.

    Perhaps the new pier could be used for swap meets or car shows.