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(Seattle, WA) -- U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) today hosted a field hearing of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in Seattle to examine Coast Guard operations in the Pacific Northwest. Murray examined the Coast Guard's work in ensuring safety and environmental protection.

As the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate's Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Murray oversees the budget of the Department of Transportation, which includes funding for the U.S. Coast Guard. Murray used the hearing to assess the maritime needs of the Pacific Northwest and to ensure the budget the subcommittee develops for Fiscal Year 2002 will meet those needs. The witnesses included:

  • Rear Admiral Erroll Brown, Commander, Thirteenth Coast Guard District
  • Stan Norman, Acting Program Manager, Oil Spill Program, Washington State Department of Ecology
  • Scott Davis, Safety Systems Manager, Washington State Ferries
  • Leslie Hughes, Director, North Pacific Vessel Owners Association
  • Harry Hutchins, Executive Director, Puget Sound Steamship Operators Association
Senator Murray's opening remarks follow:

The Coast Guard is absolutely critical to the lives and livelihood of the people of Washington State. We depend on the Coast Guard to perform its missions every day and to perform them flawlessly every time.

During this subcommittee's hearing with Secretary Mineta last month, I discussed a number of instances where I found the Transportation Department's 2002 budget request to be inconsistent with the agency's own performance goals. Now that we are taking the opportunity to focus on the Coast Guard, I am discovering much the same thing.

Over the years, the Coast Guard has been spread too thin as it tries to execute all of its missions with limited resources. This problem has persisted so long that, today, I am worried that the service cannot perform any of its missions to the level that the taxpayers expect and deserve. As a Senator with the greatest respect for the Coast Guard and its people, that is a painful thing for me to say.

But, as we look across all of the Coast Guard's many missions — Fisheries Enforcement, Marine Safety, Marine Environmental Protection, Drug Interdiction, National Defense -- I think we can all agree that, first and foremost, we expect the Coast Guard to never fall short in the area of Search and Rescue. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest the Coast Guard has fallen far short of meeting its number 1 safety goal of saving at least 93 percent of mariners in imminent danger for all but one of the last five years.

This has occurred at the same time that the Coast Guard nationwide has met the goal every year. So clearly, we have a uniquely dangerous situation in the Pacific Northwest that isn't being fully addressed.

Just one month ago, the Coast Guard's Pacific Area Commander sounded the alarm on just this problem. In his Regional Strategic Assessment for 2001, Vice Admiral Riutta pointed out that, in the 13th district, we are woefully short of trained personnel to man our Search and Rescue stations. He said, and I quote:

"We don't have enough personnel to safely man the watch or perform full multi-mission responsibilities...District 13 needs an additional 250 billets to staff our ten surf stations and our other four stations...units are never fully manned with qualified personnel...the status quo is unsafe, inequitable, reduces readiness and is not sustainable."

These are not my words. They are the words of the Admiral responsible for the entire Pacific area. I take that assessment seriously. Four years ago, I attended the funeral of three of the Coast Guard's finest young seamen who died in the act of duty, seeking to save the lives of mariners off the Washington coast. The boat crews that now serve in their place deserve better support from the Coast Guard's senior leadership and better support from this subcommittee.

Last year, the subcommittee fully funded the Coast Guard's request for additional boat crews. But that request provided roughly a quarter of the number of additional people for the entire nation that Admiral Riutta has identified as being necessary just for the 13th District. For fiscal year 2002, the Coast Guard is requesting still more people in this area. But the budget request still falls well short of the stated need in the 13th District.

As we look across the Coast Guard's other missions, we see similar shortfalls in the service's ability to fully meet current or anticipated needs. Another area of great concern to me is the safe operations of the commercial fishing fleet. Commercial fishing remains the nation's most dangerous profession.

In Washington state, we had another tragic reminder of that fact just six weeks ago when the Seattle-based fishing vessel Arctic Rose went down with all hands in the Bering Sea. Fifteen lives were lost. That's the worst fishing accident in the last fifty years. Recently, fishing vessel casualties have gone up, even though the size of the fishing fleet is going down.

In the year 2000, the Coast Guard made an internal decision to reduce funding for Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety by 25 percent. Today, the Pacific area has only 21 personnel to serve the growing number of fishing vessels that request dockside inspections. Even when the Coast Guard can accommodate their request, fewer than 6 out of every 10 fishing boats are being given decals to certify that they are safe.

Next I want to turn to pollution prevention. The Coast Guard's Pacific Area Command expects to fall short of its goals of eliminating oil discharged into the water and reducing the amount of plastics and garbage discharged from marine sources. The recent findings of suspicious activity on the part of Evergreen Container Lines by the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard point out the importance of adequate inspections and oversight.

Last year, the Department of Transportation did not meet its goal for fisheries enforcement. We shouldn't be surprised. Coast Guard managers have reallocated aircraft hours such that the level of aircraft surveillance dedicated to fisheries enforcement efforts, like patrolling the boundary line between U.S. and Russian waters, is now at its lowest level in a decade.

The number of cutter hours devoted to fisheries enforcement has been cut by roughly a third in the last five years. The number of aircraft hours devoted to this important mission has been cut in half over the same period. At the same time, cutter and aircraft hours for other missions have increased. So money is not the sole solution to all of these problems. Part of the solution rests in the priorities that are articulated by the Coast Guard's senior managers.

I am very pleased that all the witnesses could join us this morning. We will first hear from Admiral Erroll Brown — our Coast Guard District Commander for the 13th District -- along with members of his staff. I am especially pleased that we will also get to hear from Master Chief Petty Officer Kim Brown. Master Chief Brown is the senior enlisted person in the 13th District and he is here to represent all the Coast Guard people who actually do the work. Following our discussion with the Coast Guard, will have two panels representing some important partners in our mutual efforts to keep our waters safe, clean, and prosperous. They include representatives of the Washington Department of Ecology, the Washington State Ferries, the Fishing Industry, and the Steamship Operators.