Sen. Maria Cantwell threatened this week to call top officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to answer questions on Capitol Hill about their decision to relocate NOAA's Pacific research fleet from Seattle to Newport, Ore.
It's been two months since Cantwell asked NOAA for specific information about the Newport site and the basis for choosing it over Seattle, Port Angeles, and Bellingham. In a Wednesday news release, Cantwell warned that the agency is "withholding information from Congress" and said her subcommittee, which oversees NOAA's operations, will compel its top officials to answer questions about the decision.
Cantwell's threat follows a Dec. 11 letter (PDF), signed by both of Washington's senators and most of the House delegation, to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NOAA head Jane Lubchenco. Among other points the letter warns NOAA not to try changing details of Newport's proposal in order to finesse federal floodplain regulations, "allowing Newport to change its offer to somehow minimize the effect on the floodplain." The floodplain issue was raised in August by the Port of Bellingham, the only one of the contenders to file a formal protest within NOAA's required timelines. The Port's attorneys cited an executive order by President Carter putting floodplain development off-limits to federal agencies except where there's no alternative.
According to the Bellingham complaint, NOAA told its four applicants it would consider only sites outside of floodplains. However, in its environmental assessment of the winning Newport site, NOAA acknowledged that it appeared to be within a base floodplain while Bellingham is not; and that "the lessor (Newport) must be consistent with Executive Order 11988." That would be Carter's order aimed at keeping the feds out of the floodplains.
The Government Accountability Office, which oversees government transactions such as this, supported Bellingham's complaint, confirming that the Newport site violates the federal floodplain regulation. It also directed NOAA to pay the legal costs of Bellingham's protest, about $200,000.
NOAA had little to say publicly in response to the current congressional squeeze. Spokesman David Hall told Crosscut by email that the agency "intends to adhere to all requirements of the executive order for floodplain management." He would not comment on the three most likely actions: restarting the selection process; proving that there's no alternative to Newport (a tough sell, since NOAA rated the Bellingham site as high or higher in most categories); or shifting the Newport location in such a way that it's outside the floodplain. The Dec. 11 letter from the congressional delegation seemed designed to warn NOAA away from that third option. Hall said it would be premature to comment on any of the three "until a final decision is made about actions to be taken in response to the GAO decision." NOAA has until the end of January to respond to the GAO ruling.
The six House members who signed the congressional letter include Reps. Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, Jim McDermott, Brian Baird and Dave Reichert. Not signing were Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, who represents parts of King, Pierce, and Thurston counties, and Eastern Washington Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Doc Hastings.
The letter offered no evidence that NOAA was planning to allow any tweaking of Newport's offer. But it expressed a suspicion that if the response to the GAO's findings is up to "those who conducted the original flawed competition, we will see brazen attempts to preserve the award to Newport, rather than any real effort to comply with the spirit of GAO's recommendations and Executive Order 11988."
"The whole issue's about fairness," Bellingham Port Director Fred Seeger told Crosscut. "The Port of Bellingham spent a lot of money putting together its proposal. We're just asking for a fair process." Seeger said the Port is "delighted at the amazing support and cooperation we've received from the delegation and especially from Senator Cantwell."
There's no indication that the GAO findings or congressional pressure have given NOAA or Newport any second thoughts. NOAA spokesman Hall emphasized earlier this month that "there are no plans to suspend work at the Newport facility." The Port of Newport has hired engineers and contractors and plans to begin demolition in January. And General Manager Don Mann says, "Nobody's told us to slow down."