Locke: NOAA should have considered fleet in Seattle, but it's too late
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke acknowledged Wednesday that NOAA failed to adequately consider basing its research fleet in Seattle, before it decided to lease docks in Oregon. But it's too late to go back to the drawing board.
Seattle Times science reporter
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke acknowledged Wednesday that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) did not adequately consider basing its research fleet at federally owned facilities in Seattle before deciding to lease docks in Newport, Ore.
"That analysis has not been done," the former Washington governor said during a visit this week to Seattle.
But it's too late to go back to the drawing board.
"The contracts and commitments have already been made," he said. "Even if we were to abandon Oregon, we would still be liable for all the rent payments for the next 10 years."
Locke shifted the blame for a selection process criticized by the Commerce Department's own Inspector General (IG), pointing out that the work started during the Bush administration.
"We inherited a process in which they called for bids for new facilities, nonfederal facilities," he said.
Locke's comments came after an event at the Seattle Public Library, where he announced a stimulus grant to expand high-speed Internet access in rural parts of the state.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who also participated in the event, gave Locke a letter protesting the fleet's move, signed by 32 of the more than 100 NOAA employees who will be affected.
Seattle has joined several members of Washington's congressional delegation in pushing for NOAA to reconsider the move.
"I realize we're fighting an uphill battle," McGinn said. "But we think it's the right choice, not just for Seattle, but for NOAA and our national budget."
Of the four sites that were considered — including Bellingham, Port Angeles and the current home port on Lake Union — Newport clearly offered the best deal, Locke said.
"The state of Oregon supplied millions of dollars to subsidize that facility, so that the cost to NOAA, to the American taxpayer, would be so much cheaper."
But the IG pointed out that existing federal properties might have provided an even cheaper alternative that wasn't fully evaluated.
Both NOAA's Western Regional Center on Lake Washington and a parcel of federally owned land in the Duwamish industrial area could have housed some of the NOAA ships and the administrative personnel, the IG found. In fact, NOAA has been using both sites for several years since a fire damaged docks on Lake Union.
NOAA officials have said both sites have flaws and that they prefer a facility where all ships and workers are in the same location.
As a result of concerns about NOAA's site-evaluation process, Locke ordered a top-to-bottom review of his agency's acquisitions and real-estate practices. (NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.) A preliminary report is due out September.
NOAA's Pacific fleet includes 10 vessels, four of which are based in Seattle. The ships are used for underwater mapping, fisheries research and a wide range of scientific projects.
The unhappy NOAA workers said in their letter to Locke that Newport, a small community on the Oregon coast, lacks the shipyards and skilled services needed to maintain the fleet. They said many NOAA workers will retire or quit, rather than move to an area with fewer job opportunities for spouses, little diversity and lower-rated schools.
"Since the Newport decision was announced, NOAA's leadership had downplayed employee concerns, suggesting we 'just get over it' and accept their decision," the letter said. "We ask you to revisit that assessment."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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