Senators write in support of Newport Coast Guard helicopter base

A member of U.S. Coast Guard's Vessel Boarding Security Team is hoisted to the deck of the motor vessel Ironwood by an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter during a multi-agency test of the readiness of the participants to handle various threats.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have urged the Office of Management and Budget to include funding for U.S. Coast Guard helicopter bases in Newport and in Charleston, South Carolina, in the Coast Guard’s budget.

The Coast Guard had sought to close the helicopter bases last year in a cost-saving move, but several lawmakers, arguing that the bases provide critical search and rescue operations, stepped in to get Congress to keep the bases open.

“We understand all too well the financial pressures facing the Coast Guard and other agencies and departments, particularly as the result of sequestration and Congress’ stop-and-go budgeting,” said the letter signed by the Oregon Democrats last week. “We’re doing our part to secure scarce resources though the congressional appropriations process for the vital air stations.”

Newport is home to a largest grossing commercial fishing fleet in Oregon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Operations Center, Oregon State University research personnel and a large recreational fishery.

Officials from the Coast Guard have said the agency can still meet its national standard of two-hour rescue times using MH-65 Dolphin helicopters from Air Station North Bend to the south and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from Air Station Astoria to the north. The neighboring bases are roughly 45 minutes to an hour in flight time from Newport.

The possible closure has faced widespread opposition from commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, surfers and local politicians.

Supporters of the Newport base say the cold water and rough seas along the central Oregon Coast demand a quicker response time.

A Coast Guard helicopter was first placed at Newport in 1987 after public outcry over several accidents, including the capsizing of the commercial fishing boat Lasseigne in 1985 that killed three commercial fishermen.

The nonprofit Newport Fishermen’s Wives, which campaigned for the helicopter after the Lasseigne, had filed a federal lawsuit to try to block the most recent attempt at closure. The city of Newport, Lincoln County and the Port of Newport had joined the lawsuit, which was dismissed in April.

The Coast Guard argued that the lawsuit was moot because it no longer planned to close the base and had been blocked by Congress.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, a ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee overseeing the Coast Guard, has criticized the stagnant budgets he said led the Coast Guard to propose ill-advised closures of the bases in Newport and Charleston.

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