Washington, DC — Even as it faces yet another round of major budget cuts, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is proceeding with a quarter-billion dollar effort to build a mega-office complex on a Superfund Site located on a Navy-owned island, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NOAA employees point to a host of unresolved environmental and operational problems that, in the past two months, have already boosted the original $242 million cost estimate for the new complex to more than $276 million, with the final price tag likely rising much higher.
NOAA is moving to consolidate all of its personnel within Hawaii at one location through construction of a 400,000 square foot building and associated facilities on Ford Island, located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’s largest estuary. Besides the 740 employees from 18 separate NOAA offices who would work on Ford Island, NOAA has briefed staff on plans to build 900 housing units on site, as well.
To fast-track the project, which NOAA announced months before undertaking any environmental review, the agency is seeking to avoid any detailed environmental studies using an assessment prepared for it by the U.S. Navy, which owns and manages Ford Island. The Navy’s assessment claims the project would create no significant impacts. NOAA employees, on the other hand, contend the agency is overlooking a myriad of problems, such as—
- Massive pollution on Ford Island, which is part of a larger Superfund site overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Besides extensive PCB and heavy metal concentrations, Ford Island has uncontained petroleum seepage and potential lead contamination;
- Introduction of exotic species, pathogens and other potentially harmful elements into the Pearl Harbor estuary from the relocation of its Seawater Laboratory unless a special, secure waste treatment system is also built, but this new system has not been designed, let alone included within the project budget; and
- Crippling tsunami preparedness by putting the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at a sea level site that may not be operational after the first tsunami wave or waves generated by a hurricane or other big storm. In addition, the island has no evacuation plan and is linked to Oahu by a single bridge that must be raised to allow Navy vessels to vacate.
“As an environmental agency that is supposed to be protecting estuaries and coastal waters, NOAA should be ashamed of itself,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Given all the problems, no wonder the Navy is eager to unload this hairy white mastodon of a project on its pliant civilian sister agency.”
At the same time that NOAA is preparing major outlays for the Ford Island site, Congress and the Bush administration are drastically cutting the agency’s budget, with the axe falling hardest on its ocean-related assets. The House of Representatives recently approved a half-billion dollar cut in NOAA’s annual operations, with the biggest funding cuts in the National Ocean and National Marine Fisheries Services.
“NOAA appears to be suffering from an edifice complex,” Ruch added, noting that the Government Accountability Office recently issued a report blasting NOAA for lack of strategic planning and risk-assessments in its tsunami-related planning. “In the face of declining budgets, NOAA science will have to be cut back even more to make room for bureaucratic empire building.”
After construction, Ford Island would remain under Navy control and access to the NOAA complex would be through Navy checkpoints. The site would also contain unspecified “secure facilities for [military] detainees.” Since NOAA is supposed to oversee and regulate the impacts on marine life from Navy operations, such as the new sonar arrays that are linked to whale beachings, some employees are also questioning the propriety of placing the civilian control agency inside a Navy base.