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January 14, 2009

Navy closer to homeporting carrier at Mayport

Setting the stage for some bitter Congressional battles, the Navy has moved a significant step closer to homeporting a single nuclear powered aircraft carrier (CVN) at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Mayport, Florida, and to making the associated infrastructure modifications. These include dredging, infrastructure and wharf improvements, and construction of CVN nuclear propulsion plant maintenance facilities.

Many commentators believe that the carrier most likely to be placed in Mayport is the last Nimitz class carrier, the just-commissioned George H.W.Bush.

Mayport was home to the conventionally powered U.S.S. John F. Kennedy carrier until its bitterly contested decommissioning last March. However, Virginia leaders have been battling to retain as many carriers as possible in the Hampton Roads area.

On November 20, 2008, Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Jim Webb (D-VA), Senator-elect Mark Warner (D-VA), and Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine called the Navy's announced preference to create a second East Coast homeport for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Mayport, Fla. "strategically flawed and fiscally irresponsible." They called on the Navy to delay its decision until a new administration is allowed to analyze the proposal's strategic and fiscal considerations.

As recently as January 8, Senator Webb issued a 24-page critical assessment of the Mayport proposal.

Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy and member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, concluded that absent a "compelling argument to justify the Navy's proposal," no funds should be appropriated for planning or relocation of the carrier to Mayport. Webb forwarded his critical assessment to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees for review.

Be that as it may, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations & Environment, B.J. Penn, today signed a Record of Decision for the Mayport Homeporting Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

"We have studied this issue very carefully and considered multiple factors," said Donald C. Winter, Secretary of the Navy. "This allows the Navy to obtain the benefits of fleet dispersal without negatively impacting our carrier capability or operations. Homeporting a carrier in Mayport best supports the Navy's mission and safeguards our nation's security needs."

Homeporting a CVN at NAVSTA Mayport, says the Navy, reduces risks to fleet resources in the event of natural disaster, manmade calamity, or attack by foreign nations or terrorists. This includes risk to aircraft carriers, industrial support facilities, and the people that operate and maintain these crucial assets.

Mayport allows for advantages of fleet dispersal and survivability without impacting operational availability,argues the Navy. On the West Coast, the fleet accepted some reduced operational availability associated with homeport dispersal. Ships lose operational availability during the additional transit time required to reach operational and training areas from the Pacific Northwest.

By establishing a second CVN homeport on the East Coast, the Navy gains the dispersal advantage without the increased transit time. The proximity to training areas and transit time to operating areas is about equal from Norfolk and Mayport.

West Coast CVN homeports and maintenance facilities are not viable options in planning for Atlantic Fleet CVN assets in the event a catastrophic event occurs in the Hampton Roads area, says the Navy. The nuclear powered aircraft carriers are too large to transit the Panama Canal, requiring a 12,700 nautical mile voyage around South America to reach the closest CVN homeport on the West Coast at NAVSTA San Diego.

The EIS examined potential environmental consequences of constructing and operating facilities and infrastructure associated with homeporting additional surface ships at NAVSTA Mayport. It assessed 13 alternatives, including a "no action" alternative. The EIS evaluated resources in the Mayport area that may be affected by the proposed action, such as air and water quality, biological resources (such as marine mammals and threatened and endangered species), land use, cultural resources, and socioeconomics. The EIS also accounted for cumulative impacts from other activities in the Mayport area.

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