Thursday, July 1, 2010

Feds Slam NOAA Fleet Move from Seattle

A federal auditor has castigated the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its decision last year to move NOAA’s Pacific research fleet of four vessels from Seattle, Wash., to Newport, Ore., saying that NOAA limited its search to solutions that consolidated the research fleet in one location and failed to properly consider the cost savings of utilizing existing federal facilities in Seattle.

Called for by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the report was conducted by the United States Department of Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser. Sen. Cantwell is chair, and Sen, Snowe the ranking member, of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. NOAA operates under the auspices of the Commerce Department.

"We are unable to provide assurance that NOAA's award of the lease to the Port of Newport provided the most cost-effective solution ... for the government," said Zinser in his report, which examined whether the NOAA decision to relocate adhered to federal, departmental, and NOAA requirements.

In his report, Zinser also criticized NOAA for not subjecting the new location search project to "a rigorous capital investment planning and oversight process." He noted that NOAA policies for facility capital planning and investment are unclear in their scope and requirements, which left the search process subject to few requirements, lacking in meaningful oversight and driven unnecessarily by schedule demands.

Though relatively severe in his analysis of the process, ultimately, Zinser concludes that the outcome of the NOAA decision would not likely have changed even if proper procedure and policy had been followed.

Zinser points out that two of the four locations had lease rates beyond what NOAA is authorized to pay. A third location was located in a floodplain and received a lower technical rating than Newport.

"Based on our analysis," Zinser wrote, "we also concur that the outcome is unlikely to have changed in the absence of these weaknesses and errors."

Last year, NOAA awarded the Port of Newport with a $2.5 million-a-year 20-year lease for a new facility. The state of Oregon gave Newport a $19.5 million subsidy to construct a new dock and office facility for NOAA.

Opponents of the move from Lake Union, where NOAA has operated out of for nearly 50 years, pointed out that Newport has no major maritime facilities and is more than 200 miles from Seattle where the researchers are based.

Proponents argued that, over the long run, the move would save taxpayers money.