The NOAA exodus: What went wrong?

Taken by surprise, some members of the Washington D.C. delegation are preparing to challenge the decision moving NOAA from Seattle to Newport, Oregon. It's a particularly tough blow for Bellingham, whose ambitious waterfront revival was counting on the NOAA fleet.
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NOAA ships at their Seattle base

Taken by surprise, some members of the Washington D.C. delegation are preparing to challenge the decision moving NOAA from Seattle to Newport, Oregon. It's a particularly tough blow for Bellingham, whose ambitious waterfront revival was counting on the NOAA fleet.

Puget Sound port cities and Washington'ꀙs Congressional delegation are wondering what went wrong. Why would the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration turn its back on the familiar home waters of Puget Sound and move its big Marine Operations Center-Pacific to Oregon? NOAA announced yesterday (August 4) that it will move the center from Seattle to Newport, when its Lake Union lease expires in 2011. A possible move from Seattle had been anticipated since 2006, when fire destroyed two of NOAA'ꀙs piers. Bellingham, Port Angeles, and Astoria, Oregon had made competing proposals, along with Newport.

Members of Washington'ꀙs Congressional delegation seemed stunned by the news that NOAA — brought to Lake Union and Lake Washington by the legendary Sen. Warren Magnuson in 1975 — would reject three Washington ports in favor of Oregon. A spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks, whose Congressional District includes Port Angeles, said 'ꀜwe never saw this coming. Who would have believed they'ꀙd have moved it out of Puget Sound?'ꀝ

Washington'ꀙs Sen. Maria Cantwell pledged to fight the NOAA decision, but it isn'ꀙt clear just what she can do about it. 'ꀜThat'ꀙs what we'ꀙre trying to figure out right now,'ꀝ a Cantwell press office staffer told Crosscut Tuesday afternoon. Cantwell'ꀙs a member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the agency.

Federal departments sometimes seek public and Congressional comment before a decision of this importance, but NOAA did not. Cantwell said the decision 'ꀜwas made by procurement officers at NOAA and did not allow for input from members of the public or elected officials.'ꀝ

Sen. Patty Murray complained, 'ꀜThis is the wrong decision for taxpayers, NOAA'ꀙs mission, and its employees. 'ꀜ Murray said she'ꀙll work with Cantwell to 'ꀜensure that this decision is properly scrutinized.'ꀝ

One Congressional staffer asked incredulously, 'ꀜWhere was the Secretary of Commerce [former Washington Gov. Gary Locke]? He had to have signed off on this. How did he let it happen?'ꀝ

No community had more at stake in the NOAA relocation decision than Bellingham. Officials were counting on a relocated NOAA to anchor the biggest saltwater redevelopment project on the West Coast. The Port and City of Bellingham are putting up hundreds of millions to make their new waterfront ready for business and industrial tenants still to be named. NOAA was to be the first — such was the hope — with its ten large research vessels, 175 employees on board the ships, and landside laboratories.

There had been no promises by the federal agency, but the Bellingham site seemed a perfect fit — 220 acres of prime waterfront, with a deepwater port well protected from Pacific storms. There are vacant waterfront warehouses that could have been readily converted into NOAA research labs, and a shipping terminal already zoned for NOAA use. Western Washington University had considered moving Huxley College of the Environment to dockside as a collaborative center for NOAA'ꀙs research staff. There'ꀙs been no comment from the University on the feasibility of moving Huxley to the waterfront without NOAA.

Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike told the Bellingham Herald, "Wow, I am very surprised, but I think it probably reflects the clout of Peter DeFazio." De Fazio's the second-ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but his press staff told Crosscut that De Fazio's committee work has little or nothing to do with NOAA.

So, perhaps the head of NOAA, Administrator Jane Lubchenco, had a hand in the decision? She's a long-time member of the science faulty at Oregon State University, which operates marine science facilities at Newport. However, her NOAA appointment came in March, when presumably the relocation decision was nearly complete.

The commanding officer of NOAA in Seattle, Capt. Michele Bullock, says the site selection was made by professional procurement specialists, and that all sites were judged on the same criteria, 'ꀜquality of life for the employees, and the best value for the agency, and not just on the low bid.'ꀝ

'ꀜOf course we'ꀙre disappointed,'ꀝ Bellingham Port spokesperson Carolyn Casey told Crosscut. 'ꀜNOAA would be a really wonderful anchor tenant, but we have other plans as well. We'ꀙre in conversation with two companies who are interested in manufacturing and shipping at our port.'ꀝ

There'ꀙs speculation in Port offices that the State of Oregon'ꀙs backing of Newport with $19.5 million in bonding capacity sweetened the Newport deal beyond anything the Washington ports could offer. Bellingham didn'ꀙt want to get into a subsidizing contest, Casey said. 'ꀜWe don'ꀙt know what our competitors offered, and some may have decided it was worthwhile to offer a subsidy. Our Port doesn'ꀙt think a farmer in Lynden should be subsidizing a federal agency on Bellingham Bay.'ꀝ

Coincidentally, the sweetener Oregon provided in the way of credit backing is about the same amount the Port of Bellingham expected the NOAA lease to produce yearly. It was expected to bring 188 permanent jobs to a community where — Georgia Pacific having closed and Western Washington University undergoing severe staff cuts — living wage jobs are increasingly hard to come by.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.