Olympia port set to vote on Ready Reserve Fleet ships Oct. 26

After a 30-minute discussion during a work session on Monday, the Port of Olympia commission is now set to vote Oct. 26 on whether to approve a contract that would bring two, 600-plus foot ships to the marine terminal for the next five years.

If approved by the commission next week, the two ships, Admiral W.M. Callaghan and Cape Orlando, would arrive March 2021, according to the port. The potential deal is set to pay the port $3.5 million.

But the two ships have also generated a lot of questions, both at a port meeting on Oct. 12 and again Monday afternoon, which led Marine Terminal Director Len Faucher to go through a list of questions submitted by the commission.

One of the main questions: Are they military ships?

Faucher said they are not military ships. However, it’s a confusing answer because ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet, sometimes also known as the Ready Reserve Force, can be used, he acknowledged, to support “national defense, emergencies and humanitarian efforts.”

The fleet, or force, is part of the U.S. Maritime Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Still, Faucher emphasized the five-year contract is only for a layberth, meaning the ships would tie up at the marine terminal and do little else. There is no plan for the ships to handle cargo, he said. The ships, however, will have small crews and might be used five days a year, Faucher said.

But Commissioner E.J. Zita, citing what she called the “voluminous” written comment received by the port about the ships, said many in the community are concerned the ships could potentially handle military cargo.

Faucher was unmoved.

“The contract is for layberth only,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Downing said that if the ships were to handle cargo it would require a separate action from the commission.

The subject of military cargo has been controversial in recent years. More than a decade ago, it triggered protests in downtown Olympia. About four years ago, after there was talk of moving military cargo through the port, Commissioner Zita, and later the commission itself, held “listening sessions” to get feedback from the public.

Zita recalled those conversations at a recent port meeting, saying some supported the cargo, some did not and some would welcome soldiers returning from overseas, but would not support sending military cargo.

Faucher answered other questions as well on Monday, not all of which appeared to satisfy Zita.

On the question of whether the two ships will affect marine recreation in the area, the answer was this: “We understand there is no issue,” said Faucher after checking with the Coast Guard.

Zita probed for more information.

“Can you tell us a little more?” she asked, wondering whether someone has checked with the Olympia Yacht Club or Olympia Area Rowing.

The two ships are expected to tie up side by side which would give them a combined width of 200 feet.

Commissioner Zita, citing the U.S. Maritime Administration website, said that 500 feet of the bottom of the Callaghan was damaged in the Middle East about 30 years ago. She wondered whether it has truly been repaired.

Faucher cited the same website to say it has been repaired, plus ships have regular shipyard schedules to make repairs.

Commissioner Downing called Zita’s repair question a “valid request.” He, too, wants more information about the seaworthiness of the Callaghan.

The Port of Olympia commission will meet online at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 26.

Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.

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