PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the Navy’s decision not to repair a nuclear attack submarine gutted by an arsonist’s fire in Kittery won’t trigger any layoffs at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but is still a troubling repercussion of federal spending cuts.
Pingree held a news conference in Portland early Wednesday afternoon to relay the results of a series of morning talks between the 1st District congresswoman and shipyard officials, as well as to reiterate her frustration with a slate of mandated federal budget cuts commonly known as the sequester.
“The sequester is completely unpredictable,” she said. “[The Navy has] already cut as much fat as they possibly can. They’re running out of gas now.”
The Los Angeles Class nuclear attack sub USS Miami was badly damaged in a May 2012 fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, The fire injured five people and lasted longer than 12 hours. The blaze was later determined to have been set by 25-year-old shipyard worker Casey James Fury, who said he was suffering from an anxiety attack and set the fire in order to leave work early.
The U.S. Navy had long pledged to repair the submarine and budgeted approximately $450 million for the job. But Pingree said Wednesday that, as work began on the project, repair estimates rose to nearly $700 million.
Because of “uncertainty surrounding the [fiscal year] 2014 budget” that Pingree said was “driven by the sequester,” “the Navy felt like it really couldn’t commit to the investment.”
Pingree — who met Wednesday morning with shipyard commander Capt. William Greene and Vice Adm. William Hilarides, who oversees the Navy workforce, on Tuesday — said the Kittery submarine facility has enough work lined up to maintain its workforce despite the loss of the USS Miami repair job.
The shipyard employs approximately 6,000 civilian workers, about 1,300 of whom have been forced to take unpaid furlough days because of Department of Defense spending cuts implemented in response to sequestration.
On Wednesday, Maine’s other U.S. House representative, Democrat Mike Michaud of the 2nd District, announced that the department has reduced the number of furlough days required of affected workers from 11 to six.
Still, Pingree on Wednesday lamented the Navy’s decision to walk away from the USS Miami repairs, calling it a “strategically important” ship in the fleet and a “canary in the coal mine” that foreshadows other potential defense cuts if sequestration isn’t overturned.
Pingree said the USS Miami had at least five tours of active duty left in her lifespan.
“This is just a sad day for everybody,” she said. “As the sequester moves forward, we’ll start seeing more and more projects like this that won’t move forward.”
Sequestration refers to $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in on March 1 of this year after members of Congress couldn’t agree on alternative federal budget savings plans.
Pingree, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday she voted against the Budget Control Act that included the sequestration mechanism and blamed partisan “gridlock” for perpetuating the budget standoff.
“This is an economy that’s starting to move forward again, and if we can’t get new investment, it’s going to [stunt that progress],” she said.