The Port of Bellingham is on solid ground in claiming that Newport, Ore., isn'êt.
That'ês the essence of a ruling announced today in Washington, D.C. The Government Accountability Office ruled in favor of Bellingham'ês protest of the process that picked Newport as the new site for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration'ês new facility for its Pacific Research Fleet. NOAA currently bases its Pacific Fleet on Lake Union in Seattle, but its lease expires in 2011. The agency announced in August that it would move to Newport, choosing that Oregon Coast city over Bellingham, Seattle, and Port Angeles.
Bellingham filed a formal protest, pointing out that the Newport site is on a federally designated floodplain. As Crosscut reported in August, that'ês contrary to federal guidelines dating back to the Carter administration. Longstanding federal practice requires the agency to show that there'ês no practical alternative to the floodplain location. That could be tough to prove, in that NOAA gave the Bellingham application equally high marks with Newport in several categories.
The Port of Bellingham claims NOAA specified in its site-selection criteria that it would consider only sites outside of flood plains. In its environmental assessment covering the change in location, NOAA pointed out that Newport appeared to be 'êwithin a base flood plain.'ê It said "the lessor (Newport) must be consistent with Executive Order 11988.'ê That'ês President Carter'ês set of administrative rules aimed at discouraging federal agencies from building in flood plains.
Bellingham Port Commission President Scott Walker issued a statement of barely repressed jubilance over the GAO ruling. 'êWe'êre very pleased with this decision,'ê he said in a news release. 'êWe believe it validates our concern that this was not a fair site selection process. We anticipate learning more in the next few days about NOAA'ês next steps.'ê
The GAO ruling does not necessarily mean NOAA has to restart the site selection process, but it means Bellingham'ês protest has legal standing, and NOAA has to explain its brush-off of the federal rules. In a section that could be read as a rebuke to NOAA'ês selection committee, GAO instructed NOAA to pay the Port of Bellingham the full cost of preparing the protest, including legal fees. That amounts to $200,000 or so, according to interim Port Director Fred Seeger. Most of that goes to the Seattle-based law firm of Perkins Coie, whose Washington office handled the protest.
Port Commissioner Walker said the ruling helps maintain Bellingham'ês hopes of landing the NOAA fleet, with its potential of 188 jobs and $18 million to $20 million a year in economic impact. But Bellingham remains at a disadvantage on the issue of cost. The City of Newport and the State of Oregon offered what amounts to a $19 million subsidy to pay the cost of moving and re-establishing the NOAA fleet. Bellingham declined.
'êWe don'êt know if in the end we will be able to compete with the $19 million subsidy,'ê Walker said.
The private Seattle owner of the Lake Union site also filed a protest against the selection of Newport, but it was rejected.