Paperwork, cleanup on tap for battleship
By CAROL COMEGNO
MOUNT HOLLY - After a long fight to bring the USS New Jersey to Camden, Home Port Alliance members must wait at least two months before they can board the battleship at its temporary berth in the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
More paperwork, a congressional review and a cleanup of toxic materials must occur before the Navy will sign a contract releasing the ship.
Only then can Alliance members set foot on the weather-worn, wooden deck of the ghost-like vintage ship.
The Navy on Thursday approved the group's plan to bring the much-decorated battleship to Camden as a memorial and museum.
Now, the first order of business is to seek U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval for a safety plan to address hazardous materials aboard ship, said retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan, Alliance president. These include PCBs, used as insulation and a coolant in electrical gear, and asbestos in engine rooms or around steam lines.
"We have to either remove it or otherwise remediate it in a way acceptable to the federal government, like encapsulation," he said.
McGuigan said the Home Port Alliance application to the Navy had a detailed plan for remediation that the EPA is now being asked to approve. Those details are not yet public.
McGuigan said new federal regulations require correction of environmental hazards that years ago were not thought to be dangerous to sailors.
The Navy granted an exception to its no-admission policy in November, when the New Jersey made its final passage through the Panama Canal. At that time, a group of about 60 people - mostly New Jersey dignitaries and media members - were permitted on the battleship's deck.
The Alliance of government, business and labor leaders also must wait out a congressional review period. Opposition to the Navy decision from Congress is considered unlikely because Camden's application attracted support from other states. But North Jersey congressmen supported a rival bid by the New Jersey Battleship Commission for a Bayonne site.
The congressional comment period of 30 legislative days could stretch to nearly two calendar months, Alliance members say. That's because Congress will take breaks in its session, which begins the week of Jan. 31.
U.S. Reps. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., and Jim Saxton, R-N.J., worked to advance the Camden cause as members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee.
They also helped cut in half the former 60-day legislative comment period. That change occurred as part of legislation quietly passed in October as part of the defense authorization bill for 2000.
"The Navy ship program office came to us and asked us to consider shortening the period of time for congressional review so donations could move more quickly," said Andrews, whose district includes Camden. "We thought it would be good to establish a better relationship with them by doing this."
Andrews said Saxton deserves the bulk of the credit for many behind-the-scene efforts, such as helping persuade the Panama Canal Commission to move the battleship through in 1999, and getting the state to set aside $2 million to tow the ship from Bremerton, Wash.
"Without Jim, these things would not have happened, and he deserves the credit," said Andrews, who joined Saxton on the Armed Service Subcommittee last year.
"Yes, (state Senator) Joe Azzolina as head of the state battleship commission did a lot and supported the early canal transit. But frankly, members of the canal commission don't listen to an Azzolina as they do to congressmen."
Andrews said he lobbied for the Armed Services post a year ago because he believed he could help the effort to bring the battleship to Camden.
Andrews and Saxton dismissed an accusation Thursday by U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who represents Bayonne. Menendez said the Navy cared more about two votes on the powerful Armed Services Subcommittee than it did about the final home of the battleship.
"The application was terrific on its own," said Andrews. "And the vote of the Navy's executive panel recommendation to Navy Secretary (Richard) Danzig for Camden was unanimous." Andrews said the federal government is full of examples of "great ideas getting shot down" because they don't have the right political backing.
"I am convinced the merits carried the day, but it's always good to have an insurance policy," he said.