About a dozen Juneau residents picketed a meeting at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Auke Bay lab on Tuesday afternoon, urging federal officials and congressional staffers not to build a $50 million fisheries research center at Lena Point.
Holding signs that said "Public Opinion Should Count," "Staying Here Makes More Cents," and "Don't Waste $50 M at Lena," the protesters included Lena Point residents, retired Auke Bay lab employees and others.
Judy Maier, who described herself as an interested citizen, said NOAA's Auke Bay lab should be preserved.
"I just think this is the right spot and the other spot isn't," she said. "Why aren't they talking about Auke Bay? This is the right place."
NOAA's regional office was hosting a meeting with its legislative affairs staff and congressional aides from the House Resources Committee, Senate Commerce Committee and other offices, according to NOAA Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger.
Funding for NOAA's fisheries research programs in Alaska was the focus of the trip, and the staffers planned to visit the Lena Point site.
"This gives them an opportunity to learn about what's going on in Alaska," he said. "It's really good for the state and the area to have them here."
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last month approved $21 million for the Lena Point research center, the last piece of funding needed to complete the $50 million project. The U.S. House has $5.8 million for the center in its budget, and differences between the two versions will need to be ironed out in conference committee.
The Juneau office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Oceans also plans to move to Lena Point, but is seeking funding from the state, Balsiger said.
With researchers at the Auke Bay lab "packed elbow to elbow," NOAA is looking forward to moving its staff to a new, state-of-the-art facility, Balsiger said. While he said he understands residents' concerns, the new site will meet federal disability requirements and provide better storage for hazardous chemicals.
Additionally, the new site will hold 105 people, compared to 75 people at Auke Bay, and will allow room for expansion, he said. About three-quarters of NOAA's staff who are working on Alaska research aren't based in the state, he said.
"We'd like to see more research in Alaska," Balsiger said.
The protesters handed out literature detailing their objections to the Lena Point site as the staffers walked through the parking lot. Picketers were able to talk to some of them, Lena Point resident Kirk Miller said.
Retired Auke Bay lab employees have said the Lena Point site will not provide access to both fresh water and salt water now possible at Auke Bay. NOAA officials have said they will maintain a hatchery at Auke Bay for research. A NOAA study comparing the two sites found the Lena Point center would cost less, in part because of a new underground parking structure that would be needed at Auke Bay.
Retired Auke Bay lab salmon biologist Joyce Landingham said property near the Auke Bay lab could be purchased for expansion. The Lena Point site won't give researchers ready access to dive equipment now possible at the Auke Bay dock, she added.
"It just does not make any sense to move the lab to a remote location. It doesn't have the facilities we have here," she said.
Meanwhile, Lena Point residents have asked the city to separate a road to the fisheries center and keep new traffic off Lena Loop Road. The city is finishing work on a draft environmental assessment of traffic options.
Protester and Lena Point resident Dave Miller said it would be a better use of money to upgrade the Auke Bay facility.
"We're paying for this facility in terms of taxpayers dollars," he said. "We need to let these people know."
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.