The U.S. Coast Guard is taking comments on the environmental impacts of its proposed multi-billion-dollar modernization. But the public may have trouble opining on such a broad topic.
The Coast Guard hopes to spend several hundred million dollars a year for about 20 years to upgrade its deepwater capability, which refers to operations at least 50 miles offshore or that require Coast Guard officials to be on-scene for a long time.
Those missions range from rescuing mariners to catching drug smugglers to cleaning up oil spills.
The Coast Guard does those tasks partly with cutters that are among the oldest of similar worldwide fleets, the agency said. By 2008, most cutters will be more expensive to keep running than to replace.
One cutter in Alaska, the Storis, was built in 1952 and parts are no longer available.
"If something breaks on the Storis, they've got to go manufacture it," said Rear Adm. Thomas Barrett, who commands the Coast Guard in Alaska.
And not all of the ships, aircraft and communications equipment work well together. Its helicopters can't land on some ships or even directly communicate with them, said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Johnson of the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
None of the cutters based in Alaska has a hangar to carry a helicopter, said Lt. Cmdr. Ray Massey in Juneau.
"Alaska is what I call a deepwater state," Barrett said Friday. His hand swept over a map of Alaska from the maritime boundary with Russia, where the Coast Guard keeps Russian ships out of American fisheries, to the high seas south of the Aleutians, where illegal driftnetters are sometimes caught, to the Gulf of Alaska.
"The types of platforms we use out there, whether aircraft or cutters, are old," Barrett said.
Johnson, of the Coast Guard's headquarters, was in Juneau on Thursday to take public comments on environmental issues with the agency's deepwater modernization. Few people showed up at Centennial Hall or at two previous meetings in Oakland, Calif., and Seattle.
It's a first step before the Coast Guard prepares an environmental impact statement for modernization proposals put forth by three teams from private industry.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said it would wait to comment until there's something to react to.
It's possible not everything in the industry proposals will be made public in the environmental impact statement because the industry proposals will include some proprietary information they don't want the other teams to know, Johnson said.
"What we're looking for is conceptual comments" from the public, said David Batts of Tetra Tech, a contractor helping to prepare the environmental impact statement.
He's thinking of issues such as environmental effects from existing Coast Guard ships and aircraft, or how Coast Guard vessels should behave near whales or sea lions, or concerns about wastewater treatment on cutters.
The deepwater recapitalization is the federal government's first use of what it calls performance-based acquisition, Johnson said.
"We haven't told them we need certain planes, certain ships. We have told them what we need to do," said Johnson, who heads up the environmental process.
Industry teams led by Lockheed Martin, Litton/Avondale Industries and Science Applications International Corp., have been analyzing those needs since summer 1998 and will propose, by summer 2001, what assets the Coast Guard should buy from them.
"Whatever they think gives the greatest operational effectiveness for the lowest total ownership cost," which includes training costs, Johnson said. "It's certainly not just replacing what we have with new stuff. And it's not a one-for-one replacement."
A draft environmental impact statement, also due by next summer, won't include information on how home ports or staffing are affected by the proposals. Those decisions won't have been made by then, Johnson said. But there could be a site-specific public process for reviewing those decisions, Batts said.
Coast Guard officials anticipate that new ships are likely to mean smaller crews. The agency has seen that with its new icebreaker and buoy tenders, Johnson said.
That's just as well because the Coast Guard is having trouble filling its rolls, Johnson said. It's not unusual for a large cutter to be staffed at 70 percent.
"Technology has replaced a lot of the sailors. And that's something that has to happen because we have a hard time recruiting people," Johnson said.
More information is available at http://www.uscg.mil/deepwater.