Review by Congress is next step
By CAROL COMEGNO
The clock has begun ticking on the 30-day congressional review of the Navy decision awarding the USS New Jersey to the Home Port Alliance for a naval museum in Camden.
Congressmen from South Jersey said they do not expect a serious challenge from any of the congressmen who supported a competing site for the battleship in Bayonne.
As a result, they say they do not need any new strategies for defending the plan put together by the Alliance, which will operate the museum.
The Navy announced Jan. 20 its decision to put the ship on the Delaware River in Camden, near where it was built. Since then, Congress has been in session four days.
The Camden site has the support of two South Jersey representatives who sit on the House Armed Services Committee as well as bipartisan congressional support from Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware.
"I am supremely confident Cogress will not be overturning this decision," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
"You have to remember Congress has never commented on, let alone overturned, any ship donation by the Navy in the history of that program."
Any attempt to send the ship to another location would likely go to the Armed Services Committee, said Rep. James Saxton, R-N.J., who worked with Andrews on bringing the ship to Camden and also serves on the committee.
He said any congressman could introduce a resolution opposing the Navy decision.
"If they do, it would be referred to the Armed Services Committee, and I believe it will protect the Navy's decision," Saxton said.
If a challenge got beyond the committee, surrounding states would back Camden, said Saxton, who had worked with Andrews to line up the support.
Bayonne has the backing of most of the New Jersey House delegation because it is situated in more heavily populated North Jersey.
The most likely source of opposition would be Rep. Robert Menendez, a Democrat whose district includes Bayonne. He said Monday he is "studying his options."
Exactly when a contract between the regional Home Port Alliance and the Navy would be signed is unknown. Both sides hope it will occur by spring. Both houses of Congress will have to be in session simultaneously for 30 days for the deadline to pass; calendar days are not counted.
Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan, president of the Home Port Alliance, said the ship transfer to the Alliance will also hinge on getting an occupancy permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The permit requires a plan for dealing with hazardous materials, such as asbestos, aboard the ship.
McGuigan said the Navy has already sent a list of all the hazardous materials on the ship. He said the Alliance expects to get a report to the EPA this month.
In some cases, it has taken a year to obtain a contract with the Navy, he said. The battleship USS Missouri, for instance, was awarded to a Pearl Harbor group in 1996 but a contract was not signed until 1998 because of environmental problems and lawsuits.
The state battleship commission, which applied for the Bayonne site, has said it plans to work with Camden. No lawsuit is expected.
Navy spokesman Rita Wilks said the donation contract will be for custody, maintenance and operation. The Navy will retain ownership and the right to reclaim the ship in an emergency, or if the Alliance does not maintain the ship properly.
In a letter to the Alliance last month, the deputy manager of the Navy's inactive ships program, Thomas Demas, wrote that the application was impressive and that it was "gratifying to see such strong backing from the public, local officials and members of Congress."
In Trenton, a $6 million grant and other revenue for the battleship could be funneled to the Home Port Alliance through the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
"We don't yet now what our role will be," said Col. John Dwyer, an agency spokesman. "We will be meeting with the Home Port Alliance, the state battleship commission, the ship's historical museum society and other groups to discuss the future plan for the ship."