Tuesday’s announcement that NOAA intends to move its marine operations from Lake Union to Newport, Oregon, jolted the city like an 8.0 earthquake. The news stunned Seattle, a city that has valued the scientific agency’s presence for more than 50 years. Although blindsided and saddened, Seattle forces are now looking at possible next steps. They’re asking why Newport and if this is the right move for NOAA.
The first step, it goes without saying, is to acknowledge and even to congratulate Newport on putting together a successful bid for the nation’s premiere oceanographic and atmospheric research arm. The small coastal city (population 9,943 as of last year) convinced NOAA’s procurement staff that it is ready, willing, and able to sink some $44 millions of Oregon taxpayers’ money into a facility to berth NOAA’s Pacific fleet. There can be no doubt this is an incredible commitment, coming at a time when states and cities are facing the toughest economic conditions in generations.
The second step is to find out what led to the decision. It’s a puzzling outcome, one that seems to fly in the face of strategic, financial, and logistic benefits of having NOAA vessels berthed in Puget Sound waters. It’s here in Seattle that NOAA has land-based scientific facilities. It’s here that NOAA has relied on ship repair services. It’s here that NOAA has maintained scientific links to the University of Washington. It’s here that NOAA was able to berth ships in fresh water, a tremendous advantage for sea-going vessels.
Despite these close links to Seattle, the homeport siting process attracted bids from three other Northwest cities: Bellingham, Port Angeles, and Newport. What isn’t known is how each of the competitors scored and what weight was given to various criteria. Looking at the criteria objectively, one could be excused for running down the list and thinking that Newport would have ranked dead last. That is unless the $44 million was just about all that really mattered.
What led to this possibly flawed choice won’t be known until after NOAA signs a contract with Newport — something that hasn’t happened yet. Word is that the signing might take place later this week. Each of the bidders for the homeport then will have an opportunity for a debriefing. At that time, it may be clear: Why Newport?
After the signing, there’s another step: the unsuccessful bidders will have an opportunity to lodge a protest in one of three places — with NOAA, the General Accounting Office, or the Court of Federal Claims. However, the City of Seattle will not be eligible to appeal since the bid from this city came from a private company — a group of families that owns the piers that NOAA has been leasing on Lake Union.
Is there a chance that an eleventh hour appeal might succeed? That’s difficult to say. What will matter most — and it is the major consideration — is whether the decision is the right one for NOAA and for NOAA’s important scientific mission. Aside from possible appeals, the state’s congressional delegation will want to look critically at how the choice was made. Already Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on NOAA, has vowed to fight the move to Oregon. Yesterday she said, “I seriously question whether relocating NOAA’s ships outside of the Puget Sound is really the right move for NOAA.’’
Those words provide some reason for optimism. At this point it probably would take a minor miracle for NOAA’s marine operation to remain in Seattle, or even in the Puget Sound region. But miracles sometimes happen.
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