Legislation that would keep a Coast Guard helicopter in Newport -- which fishermen and other residents say is crucial to safety on the central Oregon coast -- passed the House Thursday and appears headed to quick Senate approval as well.
Oregon lawmakers, led by Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation panel, reached agreement on provisions preventing the Coast Guard from potentially moving to shut down the station next month.
"I believe in my heart that if we didn't have that helicopter, people would die in a future incident," said DeFazio in a telephone interview before the House vote.
The Coast Guard in the fall of 2014 proposed closing the station and serving the central Coast from air stations in North Bend and Astoria. The Coast Guard said it spent $500,000 a month to shuttle a helicopter between its home base in North Bend and Newport every day and that the other two stations were adequate to serve the Oregon coast.
Critics, however, said closing the Newport station would increase rescue times on the central coast, increasing the risks of death because of the cold ocean temperatures and harsh coastline.
"It's a huge community asset and not just for commercial fishermen," said Jennifer Stevenson, president of the Newport Fishermen's Wives, a non-profit that at one point took the Coast Guard to court to fight the proposed closure.
She said the helicopter has provided help for a wide number of rescue operations both on land and sea in the area.
"Newport's Coast Guard helicopter is a proven lifesaver for a huge stretch of the Oregon Coast," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement. He praised Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and DeFazio for fighting along with him "to preserve this crucial part of the coastal safety net and [we] are relieved Congress won't risk Oregonians' lives at the start of the dangerous winter season and beyond."
The delegation, joining with lawmakers in South Carolina facing a similar station closure, last year blocked the Coast Guard closing the Newport station until Jan. 1.
Stevenson said she didn't think the Coast Guard would seek to close the station next month if Congress failed to act. She said the agency has "learned a lot" about the importance of the helicopter after it proposed in the fall of 2014 to remove it.
Still, the latest bill would ensure that the station stays open for at least two more years and includes several provisions aimed at making it harder for the Coast Guard to close it after that. The agency would have to provide public notice of any closure plans and the secretary of Homeland Security would have to certify that moving a helicopter further away wouldn't reduce safety, DeFazio said.