Oil price hikes affects the U.S. Coast Guard

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Costly Fuel Forces Coast Guard Cuts

by MARY LEE GRANT Associated Press Writer

SEABROOK, Texas (AP) -- Coast Guard boats that should be patrolling the Texas coast for safety violations are docked in Galveston. In Houston, helicopters that usually fly daily searches for drug smugglers are on the ground.

All along the Texas coast and into the Midwest, rising fuel costs have forced the Coast Guard to cut back nearly every type of patrol but search-and-rescue missions by about 25 percent, officials said.

''I had no other recourse,'' said Rear Adm. Paul Pluta, whose Eighth Coast Guard District covers 26 states and includes 1,200 miles of Gulf Coast and 10,300 miles of navigable rivers.

Oil prices have increased dramatically in recent months, reaching $34 a barrel in March, almost $10 higher than in January. Prices were down to about $28 a barrel this month, but the Coast Guard still needs more money to make up for higher costs.

Covering the cost of the higher fuel prices for the Eighth District would take between $700,000 and $1.3 million, Pluta said. It's just the latest funding problem for a Coast Guard that's still using boats and planes dating back to the Vietnam era and before, he said.

Congress is discussing the possibility of appropriating more money to make up for the shortfall, but it could takes weeks, Pluta said.

''With all the budget surplus out there, the Coast Guard should be given the money to do their job,'' said Frank Reynolds, 51, who keeps a 54-foot motorboat in Seabrook.

The cutbacks will mean fewer patrols for boating safety violations, less frequent maintenance of channel markers and less time spent enforcing environmental regulations for fishing and shrimping boats, officials said.

In Galveston, the marine safety unit has reduced offshore flights and consolidated harbor patrols from three days a week to one, Lt. Marie Byrd said. In general, Coast Guard units have stopped routine safety patrols, but are responding to any reports of wrongdoing, Byrd said.

The effects stretch beyond the Texas Coast.

''If the buoys aren't maintained, it could cause us problems,'' said Dave Harms of Lake City, Minn., who boats on the upper Mississippi River. ''The barges are having enough trouble with low waters.''

Shrimper Jody Collins, 53, said a lessening of the Coast Guard's presence around Seabrook may not be such a bad thing. Shrimpers already comply with environmental regulations, he said, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department duplicates many Coast Guard services, anyway.

''This is just a way for the Coast Guard to get more money,'' he said.

In some areas, other safety patrols and police organization will be able to make up for the cut backs. In New Orleans, Benton Brown, harbormaster for the Southern Yacht Club, said his yacht club can rely on the sheriff's department patrolling the northern half Lake Pontchartrain and local police patrolling the southern half.

Search and rescue operations will remain the first priority, Pluta said.

In the Pacific Northwest, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Haley said Sunday that the shortage is theoretical, so far. But he said his 13th District was fortunate that it had some financial cushion built in.

''They've told us to be prepared for operational cuts, and right now we're looking at our budget to see where we can cut, what we can cut, and still provide the best service to the public,'' Haley said.

He noted that Woods Hole, Mass., the station involved in the recovery of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, had used so much of its budget it was sending patrols only in emergencies.

In his State of the Coast Guard address in March, Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral James M. Loy, said he was working with Congress and government agencies to increase funding.

The Coast Guard is feeling the pinch from funding shortages, and that could mean more cutbacks in some non-essential services, Jack Odell, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, said Sunday.

''People don't realize we have 34,00 people patrolling 144,000 miles of shoreline,'' O'Dell said. ''If it's not a life-threatening situation, we have to ask how much involvement from the Coast Guard there should be.''

Peter Davidson, director of the Corpus Christi Marina in Texas, said the Coast Guard's presence is necessary. It is already difficult to reach the Coast Guard in his area, even in times of emergency, he said.

''They will only come for what they consider to be a life or death situation,'' Davidson said. ''That means if someone runs their mast into a bridge or an old man runs aground, they just say to call a salvage company.''

''The Coast Guard needs to be doing more, not less,'' he said.

-- Deb M. (vmcclell@columbus.rr.com), May 28, 2000

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