[Op-Ed] Returning Ship Recycling Funds to American Museums

Published Sep 24, 2014 6:26 PM by Denise Krepp

Senator Begich is working with his fellow senators to include language in the National Defense Authorization Act that will significantly benefit the country's 1,000 non-profit maritime heritage organizations. These organizations are eligible by law to receive a portion of the over $70 million dollars collected from the sale of excess government vessels since 2005. To date, however, they have not received a dime. Senator's Begich language will stop the hoarding and force government agencies to release the funding. 

In 1994, Congress created the National Maritime Heritage Grant program. This program is jointly managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Maritime Administration (MARAD). Funding for the program comes from the sale of excess non-combatant Navy, Coast Guard, and MARAD vessels to domestic ship recyclers. The original recipients were maritime heritage organizations, including 150 historic naval ships, 600 maritime museums, 150 tall ships for youth sail training, 150 historic lighthouses, life saving stations and many educational or research organizations in more than 40 states. Sadly, the last time organizations received grant funds was in 1998 and only $652,616 was disbursed.

Fast forward 16 years, over $70 million dollars has been paid to the government for excess vessels. One quarter or $17.5 million of these funds are supposed to go to maritime heritage programs but none has been distributed. Instead, MARAD convinced Congress to give these funds to the agency in 2009 for "the preservation and presentation to the public of Maritime Heritage property of the Maritime Administration".

After the middle of the night change, the National Maritime Alliance negotiated with MARAD to share 50 percent of the funds to the original recipients. After all, MARAD was already receiving regular appropriations from Congress. The maritime heritage organizations weren't. It was the middle of the Great Recession and these organizations were struggling to stay afloat. Sadly, the original recipients were forced to tread water for four years waiting for MARAD and NPS to sign an agreement outlining agency responsibilities before the money could be distributed.  

At a National Maritime Heritage conference last week, museum representatives questioned NPS about the grant program. According to 2014 NPS press release, the program was restarted with a multi-year $7 million donation from MARAD. The first round of grant applications for $1.7 million were due September 23rd but NPS representatives couldn't tell the maritime heritage organizations when the money was going to be awarded. Similarly, NPS representatives couldn't tell attendees how the other $10 million had been spent. These representatives kept stating that they didn't work for MARAD and therefore, couldn't answer questions. MARAD representatives were in the room but shockingly refused to speak.

Senator Begich's language will restore full funding for the maritime heritage organizations. It will take the money away from MARAD and give it those who are educating Americans on a daily basis about the country's maritime history. The legislation will also force MARAD to share Memorandums of Agreement (MOAS) related to the maritime grant program with the public and at no cost. 

MARAD currently charges the public for copies of its MOAs. EMR Southern was charged $482 for copies of the MARAD ship recycling MOAs with the Navy and Coast Guard, a total of less than 20 pages. These documents authorize MARAD to retain the proceeds from the sale of excess Navy and Coast Guard vessels and then tasks the agency with disbursing the funds through current funding authorities which includes the maritime heritage organizations.  In order to prevent the government from charging the maritime heritage community to attain the documents, EMR Southern shared the MOAs with National Maritime Heritage conference attendees last week. The company would have liked to have shared a Letter of Agreement with the General Services Administration (GSA) but Secretary Foxx is refusing to give the document to EMR Southern until the company pays the government $82.

Lastly, Senator Begich's legislation reminds MARAD and the Coast Guard of the current legal requirement to recycle government vessels in the United States. Last year, GSA auctioned off the Coast Guard Cutter Storis and allowed it to be recycled in Mexico. If government had followed the law, the vessel would have been recycled in the United States and, if a sale, the proceeds would have gone to maritime heritage organizations. They don't receive funds when the government ignores the law.

Appropriately, Senator Begich named his legislation the Storis Act. The Coast Guard Cutter Storis, like her sister ships in the Navy and MARAD fleet valiantly protected America's maritime interests. Their recycled steel should be used to tell the stories of the men and women who served on them. It's time for MARAD to stop hoarding maritime grant funds and share information.