Port of Bellingham wins legal protest of NOAA decision

The Bellingham Business Journal

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has ruled in favor of the Port of Bellingham’s protest of the site selection process for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Research Fleet facility.

The Port’s protest, which was filed in August, raised a number of concerns about the site selection process, but the GAO ruling focused especially on the fact that the Newport site is in a federally designated flood plain at the mouth of the Yaquina River. The GAO directed NOAA to follow the long-standing rule requiring federal agencies to determine that there is no practical alternative before building a federal facility in a flood plain. NOAA’s site selection criteria also specified that it would only consider sites that were outside of flood plains.

“We are very pleased with this decision and we believe it validates our concern that this was not a fair site selection process,” said Port Commission President Scott Walker. “We anticipate learning more in the next few days about NOAA’s next steps following this decision. We appreciate the support we have received from our federal delegation, our state delegation and our entire community during this protest.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen also applauded the GAO decision.

“Today’s announcement is great news for the Port, City, our education partners, marine trades industry and local leaders,” said Larsen. “The GAO’s decision doesn’t mean that Bellingham is guaranteed to be the next home for NOAA’s Marine Operations Center-Pacific, but it puts us right back in the ball game.”

It is not yet known whether the GAO decision will require NOAA to launch a new selection process, whether the Newport site will still be an option or whether NOAA can remedy the selection errors in some other manner, according to Lee Curtis, the attorney representing the Port in its protest.

But Commissioner Walker said he remains hopeful that NOAA will locate its ships in Bellingham.

“That has been the Port’s goal from the beginning,” Walker said. “But we do not know if, in the end, we will be able to compete with the $19 million subsidy that the state of Oregon has provided to Newport.”

The GAO also instructed NOAA to pay the Port of Bellingham the full costs of preparing the protest, including all legal costs. Those legal costs are expected to total about $200,000, according to Fred Seeger, interim executive director for the port. About 90 percent of those costs are fees from the Washington D.C. office of Seattle-based Perkins Coie.  The Washington D.C. office has particular expertise in federal contracting laws.

In August, NOAA announced that it selected a site in Newport, Ore., for its new Pacific homeport facility and signed a 20-year lease with Newport. A few weeks later the Port’s Board of Commissioners voted to file its protest with the GAO noting irregularities in the selection process. The private Seattle land owner for the Lake Union site, where the NOAA fleet now homeports, also filed a protest but did not follow through with required continued legal filings so its protest was rejected last month.

The Port of Bellingham has been part of the formal site selection process since it began in 2007. The NOAA facility could have an estimated $19 million a year economic impact and could generate up to 188 full-time jobs.

To read the full decision from the GAO, click here.

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