Lawmakers: Newport helicopter will stay for at least 2 years

NEWPORT, Ore – Oregon congressional leaders have passed legislation to keep the U.S. Coast Guard’s Newport air facility open for another two years.

On Friday, Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced the helicopter will stay through at least 2017.

“The Newport helicopter is a literal life-saver that I’m fighting hard to keep as a vital protection for the Oregon Coast’s residents and visitors,” Wyden said. “Making sure this helicopter facility stays open for another two years provides time to find a long-term solution for Newport’s safety and the safety of all those on the coast.”

The Coast Guard first announced plans to close the Newport facility in 2014 due to budget cuts, and the news devastated the local fishing community. Many argued that rescue response times to some areas would be far more challenging and lives could be lost without a helicopter based in Newport.

The Coast Guard said its current response times would continue to be met on the Oregon Coast using other air facilities, including one in North Bend, Oregon.

A group called Newport Fishermen’s Wives filed a lawsuit to keep the heliport open. Oregon lawmakers joined the fight to keep the facility shortly after the closure was announced.

On Dec. 10, Representatives Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, along with senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, announced a deal that would keep the facility open until at least January 1, 2018.

The U.S. House passed the Coast Guard Authorization Act (H.R. 4188). The bill still needs to pass in the Senate.

“It is impossible to overstate how critical having search and rescue helicopters nearby is to Oregon’s fishing industry, coastal visitors and residents,” DeFazio said in a news release.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act prohibits the closure of any Coast Guard facility until January 1, 2018. After that, the Coast Guard can only close a facility if the Secretary of Homeland Security can demonstrate that standard rescue response times will continue to be met, or if conditions in the area do not require an air facility.

DeFazio called those conditions “significant additional hoops” that the Coast Guard will need to jump through.

The bill also includes funding to help modernize the Coast Guard’s older vessels and other assets.

The Newport facility was previously scheduled to stay open through January 1, 2016, but lawmakers needed to pass additional legislation to keep it open beyond that date.