Bellingham throws in the towel on the NOAA homeport

The fleet is sailing off to Newport, heeding the call of greater state subsidy. Bellingham gives up on its court case, accepting a token cash settlement to end the dispute.
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NOAA ships at their Seattle base

The fleet is sailing off to Newport, heeding the call of greater state subsidy. Bellingham gives up on its court case, accepting a token cash settlement to end the dispute.

The NOAA fight is over, so far as the Port of Bellingham is concerned. "We've given it our best shot," the Port's Environmental Director Mike Stoner told Crosscut on Wednesday. "We're moving on."

NOAA got off cheap. It will pay Bellingham $113,000, to cover the Port's legal fees from its protest of the agency's decision to locate its Pacific research fleet in Newport, Oregon.

The federal Government Accountability Office ruled last year that Bellingham had a legitimate case in citing a Carter-era Presidential Order prohibiting federal agencies from locating on flood plains. NOAA had conceded in its Environmental Impact Statement that the Newport site is on a flood plain and that the Bellingham site is not. The GAO ordered NOAA to show why there was no feasible alternative to the chosen Newport location.

It's the money. There was no feasible alternative NOAA said, because Bellingham's bid called for a lease payment of $4 million per year. Newport's bid was $2.6 million, with the state of Oregon subsidizing Newport's costs up to $19.5 million. Washington state law appears to prohibit such a gift and the Port of Bellingham wasn't willing. "As a taxing agency, we can't ask a farmer in Lynden to subsidize a federal agency in Bellingham," Port spokesperson Carolyn Casey told Crosscut last year.

NOAA's move from its 60-year home in Seattle takes with it some 200 high-paying jobs, a multi-million dollar annual rent, and the servicing of six to ten large research vessels. NOAA's researchers map the sea bed and measure fish populations, water quality, and climate change.

An extensive and detailed siting process had ranked Seattle, Port Angeles, and Bellingham with Newport on such issues as highway and maritime access, quality of life, the safety of their harbors, and the nearness of repair facilities (Bellingham's Fairhaven Shipyard, about a mile from the rejected NOAA location, already overhauls NOAA ships). Bellingham matched or exceeded Newport in many of the categories. That process now appears not to have mattered. What mattered was Oregon's money.

The Office of Inspector General will still investigate NOAA's selection process, at Sen. Maria Cantwell's insistence. But there's no indication that the probe might overturn the Newport decision.

What happened to the floodplain issue? Having once acknowledged the nature of the Newport site, how did NOAA make the floodplain question go away? "We're wondering the same thing," Stoner said, but he clearly didn't want to discuss it any further.

"We've told them that if they have any trouble getting their project permitted (threading a crowd of government agencies that rule on environmental and other problems) to let us know," Stoner said. "We'll still be happy to talk."


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Bob Simmons

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