Lost letter to postpone transfer of battleship
By CAROL COMEGNO
MOUNT HOLLY - A record-keeping snafu in Congress has delayed the triggering of the 30-day congressional comment period on the proposed battleship USS New Jersey museum by more than a month.
The congressional comment period on the Navy's choice of a Camden museum site for the ship was to have begun in late January but did not start until the last day of February due to a lapse in record-keeping by the House of Representatives, the Courier-Post learned last week.
This means a delay in the transfer of the ship to the nonprofit Home Port Alliance from the Navy, which cannot sign a contract with the alliance to repair and operate the ship until the 30 consecutive congressional session days expire.
The contract could be delayed even further, however, by an ongoing review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on remediation of hazardous PCBs inside mechanical equipment aboard the historic and highly decorated 58-year-old ship, said Home Port Alliance President David McGuigan. Regulatory approval of that plan is also necessary before the ship can be transferred to the alliance for repairs and opening it to the public.
"We are currently reviewing the Navy's application to comply with the Toxic Substance Control Act," said an EPA spokesman in Washington, D.C.
Navy officials at the Pentagon said both houses of Congress were notified immediately of its Jan. 20 decision favoring Camden, which won an intense competition with a Bayonne site endorsed by the state battleship commission.
McGuigan said delays are not yet of critical concern to a 2001 summer opening on the Camden Waterfront and that he never expected the ship transfer to occur before this May or June. Although the alliance cannot repair the ship -- now moored at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard -- until after the transfer, it is moving ahead with plans to hire a project management firm and a full-time executive director.
Last week, alliance trustees approved the release of a request for qualifications for a professional project manager to oversee planning, engineering, scheduling, ship restoration, pier construction and buildings such as the visitor center and enclosed walkways. That search will be advertised in trade journals and newspapers this week.
"The board feels this is a necessary step for meeting the stated vision of the memorial to economically and educationally impact Camden, the region and the state. Otherwise, the memorial may turn out to be just another Waterfront project with marginal impact on the community," McGuigan said.
Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., confirmed Friday that the House never recorded the notification in the Congressional Record, which triggers the 30-day period until Feb. 29.
The 30-day period is not based on calendar days but on session days that both houses of Congress meet.
"We don't really know how this happened," Saxton said.
After the Navy saw that the Senate recorded the notification Jan. 27 and that the House did not, the House staff was contacted and looked for its own notification letter but could not find it, Saxton said, prompting corrective action.
"What it means in the long run is that the end of January and the whole month of February was not counted, but it did not amount to many days on the congressional calendar. We expected the period to end in mid-April...but now it could be a little longer," Saxton said.
As of last week, the state had made no decisions about how $6 million in the budget and various dedicated funds will be funneled to the Home Port Alliance. Stephanie Bell, a spokeswoman for Gov. Christie Whitman, said the state is "in discussions" with the Home Port Alliance on that matter.
Both state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, an alliance trustee, and McGuigan said, however, there have been no talks though the senator said he expects them to start within a few weeks.
"No one from the governor's office has spoken to me as president of the board of trustees, and we have never received any letters about funds or anything else," said McGuigan, who had only brief contact with the governor when she awarded him an achievement medal last month.