Golden shovels out: NOAA research base breaks ground

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Lt. Cmdr. Cherisa Friedlander holds a ceremonial golden shovel used for the NOAA Marine Operations Center-Atlantic groundbreaking for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to sign at Pier 2 in Middletown on Monday, May 6, 2024. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research ships already assigned to Naval Station Newport’s Pier 2 were out at sea Monday, but U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was back in her homeport. 

The reason for the return of Rhode Island’s former governor turned high-profile member of President Biden’s cabinet was to break ground on a nearly $150 million NOAA Marine Operations Center supporting NOAA ships operating in the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes. 

Technically, work overseen by New York-based Skanska USA, has been underway for about five months with the project expected to be completed in the summer of 2027. But Raimondo joined NOAA officials, congressional delegates and Gov. Dan McKee for a celebration culminating a decade of effort to relocate NOAA’s Marine Operations Center-Atlantic from Norfolk, Virginia to Rhode Island. 

NOAA ships are operated by NOAA’s Commissioned Officer Corps with 330 uniformed officers trained in engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology and fisheries science. They work alongside civilian professional mariners to collect data used to inform policies that protect marine mammals and ocean ecosystems, manage commercial fisheries, produce nautical charts that help keep mariners safe and understand climate change.

“Here in the Ocean State, climate change is real. It’s not academic,” Raimondo told the small crowd attending the tented ceremony under a hazy white late morning sky. “We know the risks but also the opportunities that come with living and working along the coast.” 

About $100 million for the project comes from the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2022 law that is investing in building a clean energy economy and strengthening energy security.

“It’s delivered right here in Rhode Island,” Raimondo added before gold-painted shovels were passed out to dignitaries. “This investment is possible because of that.”

Bad news for Virginia’s Hampton Roads region — NOAA’s marine operations center in Norfolk is home to about 60 shoreside personnel, including civilians, NOAA Corps officers and U.S. Public Health Service officers — is good news for Rhode Island. The 5-acre site surrounding Pier 2 will be home to a new facility and pier that can accommodate four large vessels, a floating dock for smaller vessels, space for vessel repairs and parking plus a warehouse/shoreside support building. A total of 200 jobs will be assigned at the new and expanded facility.

That will undoubtedly mean more pressure on officials to alleviate the area’s housing shortage. The relocation of the NOAA facility from Virginia to Rhode Island coincides with the expansion of the U.S. Coast Guard presence with two new 360-foot ships under construction in Florida.

“It is an issue, and we’ll be making investments in affordable housing,” Raimondo said after the ceremony.

The push for the relocation was led by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and started over a decade ago.

“This is an ideal spot for NOAA’s research vessels,” Reed said, taking note of Naval Station Newport’s proximity to Navy and Coast Guard installations, academic institutions and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, located 70 miles away in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “We’re at the intersection of all of the blue economy and blue research on not just the East Coast but everywhere.”

Reed also highlighted that the work is operating under a project labor agreement as required by a Biden administration rule for large-scale federal construction projects.

“This is a great victory for working men and women here in Rhode Island,” Reed said. “That’s I think the whole essence of what President Biden is trying to do with his policies — enhance working Americans, give them the opportunity that they deserve. We have now a skilled workforce that’s going to be committed to getting this done on time, on budget and getting it done right.”

The 209-foot NOAA fisheries vessel Henry B. Bigelow is working off of Maine. NOAA’s 224-foot Okeanos Explorer, which conducts research and operations including seafloor mapping, is working out of Honolulu for the next several months.

NOAA’s 208-foot hydrographic survey ship Thomas Jefferson will be moving from Norfolk to Naval Station Newport. A fourth, the 244-foot oceanographic research vessel Discoverer, is under construction in Louisiana and scheduled to join the fleet in 2026.

The post Golden shovels out: NOAA research base breaks ground appeared first on Rhode Island Current.