During today’s Lincoln County Commissioners meeting County Counsel Wayne Belmont announced that the Coast Guard high command in Washington DC still insists on closing their Helicopter Rescue Base at the Newport Airport. Belmont told his commissioners that the Coast Guard will ask a federal judge in March to let them close it down next January 1st.
Belmont said that the congressional legislation that prevented the Coast Guard from closing it last December 15th remains in effect until next January 1st. Belmont says the Coast Guard now claims the the legislation effectively strikes down any further legal efforts to keep the base open past that date. In effect, game over for Fishermen’s Wives, the City of Newport, the Port of Newport and Lincoln County. The Coast Guard, according to Belmont, will ask the judge to dismiss the community’s legal appeal and allow the base to be closed.
Belmont said such an end game theory by the Coast Guard should not stand. He said that the community lawsuit against the Coast Guard still has the power to move forward – power resting in the National Environmental Protection Act. “NEPA,” as it’s called, requires that any major changes in federal programs or service levels must, by law, be fully analyzed and its impacts on local and regional communities be properly researched and then be presented in an open forum during which public testimony is welcomed. Belmont suggested, in a round-about way, that the Coast Guard apparently believes that these federal requirements don’t pertain to them because they simply don’t believe the closure of the helo base is that big of a deal – that there are two other helo rescue bases on the coast that can step in and adequately take over the job – a point that the Central Coast community vehemently denies. Such a disagreement on a life-and-death service, it’s been said, is precisely the kind of dispute that NEPA envisioned that requires an open and honest investigation for the public and everyone else to monitor. In effect, it’s not up to the Coast Guard command to emerge from a closed door meeting and simply declare that NEPA doesn’t pertain to them in this particular instance.
Belmont says Fishermens Wives attorney Michael Haglund will argue before the judge in March that the legal process to find a solution to the dispute is still very much alive in that the Coast Guard has not gone through the legally required NEPA analysis of the impacts the helo base closure would inflict on Central Coast communities. And when that analysis is completed and the impacts are tabulated, it will be obvious that if the base is closed, irreparable harm will be inflicted on Central Coast communities with an ever rising body count of fishermen, recreational boaters and tourists.
Belmont says there will be a flurry of legal documents from both sides in the dispute making their way to the judge’s chambers at the Federal Courthouse in Eugene between now and March. Belmont predicts the judge will rather promptly decide whether the Coast Guard is correct in their assertion that the Congress has acted and that the legal challenges are over, or if the Fishermens Wives have the legal high ground as to the jurisdiction of NEPA and therefore its requirements for full public review of proposed major actions by government agencies before they make drastic changes in service levels – especially in life and death situations.