Cantwell Secures Commitment from Commerce Nominee to Improve Nationwide Weather Forecasting
Cantwell: ‘Difference between knowing 15 minutes ahead of time and an hour is huge’
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) secured a commitment from Penny Pritzker that if confirmed as the next Secretary of Commerce, she will lead the department in updating weather forecasting technology and analysis to better protect lives and property across the nation. Pritzker also told Cantwell that as Secretary, she would look into the issue of the proposed Pebble Mine and its potential impact on wild salmon.
Cantwell has previously highlighted how innovative weather technology can help identify storms faster and more accurately. At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing in 2012, Cantwell urged the Administration to improve weather forecasting technology to mitigate the impacts of severe weather and prevent loss of life and property.
“To think National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was getting weather service information from Europe because they were further ahead – I think it was four days ahead of predicting what Sandy was going to be – than NOAA was capable of,” Cantwell said to Pritzker at today’s hearing. “That is because they have instituted new technology and used an Ensemble model, which basically analyzes the storm and information data in a new way. What do you think you can do to help bring us to a better weather-ready nation and institute new technology?”
“As the last couple of days showed us, the difference between knowing 15 minutes ahead of time and an hour ahead of time is a huge difference,” Cantwell continued. “So what do you think you can do to help us modernize that?”
“Between Hurricane Sandy, between the tornadoes in Oklahoma, the flooding in the Midwest, we’ve all seen how our weather can threaten lives,” said Pritzker, who was nominated to be Commerce Secretary by President Obama on Thursday, May 2. “So if I’m confirmed as Secretary of Commerce, making sure our weather service is best-in-class is something that I would find a high priority.”
Cantwell has led the effort to improve weather forecasting in the Pacific Northwest. She spearheaded the successful push to get Washington state’s first coastal Doppler Radar in 2011. The state-of-the-art Doppler radar is positioned west of the Olympic Mountains to improve the detection of severe storms approaching Washington’s coast and is the first fully operational Doppler radar in the nation to be equipped with dual polarization, the latest enhancement in radar technology for civilian weather forecasting.
In June 2010, Cantwell announced that Washington state would be receiving its first coastal Doppler radar a year earlier than scheduled thanks to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) obtaining an existing radar from the Air Force that could be modified to operate with the most sophisticated technology available. NOAA identified an Air Force NEXRAD radar at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi that is no longer needed for military training. By updating existing radar rather than purchasing a new system, Washington got radar coverage significantly faster and nearly $3 million under budget. Cantwell obtained funding in 2007 to complete a study, released in May 2009, which demonstrated the gap in Washington state’s weather radar coverage.
During today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Cantwell also questioned Pritzker about the potential Pebble Mine development near Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to restrict certain types of development under the Clean Water Act. The Department of Commerce has a responsibility to protect fishing jobs, in addition to overseeing NOAA, which is responsible for fishery management, salmon research and essential fish habitat.
Cantwell pressed Pritzker to have the Department of Commerce evaluate the Pebble Mine’s impact on Washington fishing jobs and Bristol Bay salmon. Bristol Bay sockeye are worth over $1.5 billion dollars annually sustaining over 14,000 jobs. For Washington state fishermen that is about $580 million dollars in annual economic value according to a University of Alaska report.
“I want to know what your thoughts are on the Bristol Bay Pebble Mine,” said Cantwell to Pritzker. “It is at the head of the largest sockeye fishery and the second largest Chinook fishery, which is basically the headwaters for the Puget Sound salmon [fishermen]. So we want to make sure that you are going to be very adamant about good science leading the way to protecting against undue development that might impact those fisheries.”
Pritzker responded: “Senator, I know the importance of salmon, you and I talked about that earlier, to your state and frankly to our country and to my dinner plate at times. Finding a balance to make sure we protect the salmon is very important to me.”
Cantwell followed up: “What I’m interested in is whether you’ll have good science …in the process?”
“Absolutely Senator, the importance of science and technology used throughout the agency is really important and particularly in that area,” Pritzker replied.
Cantwell has worked to protect Washington state jobs from potentially harmful developments in Bristol Bay, Alaska. On April 26, Cantwell reiterated that a decision on a mine should be based on ‘science, not politics’ after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a revised watershed assessment that reveled new risks a mine development posed to Washington fishing jobs. Cantwell also wrote a letter in March to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calling for an investigation into information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to federal officials regarding the Canadian company’s proposal to build the world’s largest hard rock mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
In a September 2011 letter to former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Cantwell became the first U.S. Senator to call on the EPA to use its Clean Water Act 404(c) authority to block any large development project in Bristol Bay if science determined that the project would “have unacceptable adverse impacts on water quality and the fish stocks that depend on it.”
On May 30, 2012, she wrote a letter to Jackson, Regional Administrator Dennis McLaren, and Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality with the Executive Office of the President, urging them to consider the impact of a mine on thousands of Washington state jobs. She also joined Washington fishermen and businesses on that day at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle to highlight the impact of a Bristol Bay mine on Washington jobs.
Cantwell was also successful in requesting that the EPA hold a public hearing in Seattle on May 31, 2012, to discuss how large scale development near Bristol Bay – like the Pebble Mine proposal – could hurt salmon and Washington state jobs.
A complete transcript of Cantwell’s exchange with Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker is included below. Video is available here.
Senator Cantwell: Mrs. Pritzker, welcome. Welcome to your family. Having been in business myself, there are many pluses that comes to bringing private-sector experience to the public-sector realm. But also you have to face the challenges of being accountable for some of the things that happened in the private sector and bring up all sorts of things. So my first question is our state AFL-CIO, many have a boycott of Alaska National Hyatt. And one of the issues is that they’re concerned about minimum wage jobs or the subcontracting of minimum wage jobs as a way to just keep the workforce at a lower rate. And some concerns about safety and workload issues. So one of the things you are going to face as Secretary is how to maintain and get high-wage jobs into our economy. So do you want to comment on the former or how we do the latter?
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Well, Senator, I have been in business for 27 years. And the cornerstone of success in business is you have to have a good relationship and a good balance between management and labor. There is no success in business without a good relationship between management and labor. And I support the right of workers to organize, if that’s what they want to do. I think that it’s extremely important that, as I said, management and labor work closely together on issues of good jobs and creating sustainable jobs.
Senator Cantwell: So this notion of subcontracting out to keep minimum wage jobs as a way to maintain a workforce is not something you support?
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: No, Senator.
Senator Cantwell: Okay. And as far as high standards for safety and workload issues?
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Senator – the high standards for safety – absolutely. The workforce is a part of one’s business family if you will. You have to have a business that operates in a way that works for everyone; management, labor, all the stakeholders. To me, safety and security of one’s labor force and one’s management is absolutely a number-one priority.
Senator Cantwell: One issue I would love to see you take a leadership role on within the department and one you and I had a chance to talk about. And one, I think, you could bring a huge private sector focus to that would be very, very helpful is this issue that the Chairman brought up in his opening statement about a weather-ready nation. To think National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was getting weather service information from Europe because they were further ahead – I think it was four days ahead of predicting what Sandy was going to be – than NOAA was capable of. That is because they have instituted new technology and used an Ensemble model, which basically analyzes the storm and information data in a new way and then presents it. What do you think you can do to help bring us to a better weather ready nation and institute new technology? I know we just passed a Sandy bill and there’ll be more supercomputing time, but this is an issue where we have to keep competitive. As the last couple of days showed us, the difference between knowing 15 minutes ahead of time and an hour ahead of time is a huge difference. So what do you think you can do to help us modernize that?
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Senator we are all reminded over the last several months of the importance of having a top-quality and a best-in-quality weather service. Between Hurricane Sandy, between the tornadoes in Oklahoma, the flooding in the Midwest, we’ve all seen how our weather can threaten lives, as well as property but lives. So if I’m confirmed as Secretary of Commerce, making sure our weather service is best-in-class is something that I would find a high priority.
Senator Cantwell: Do you think that could include working with the Department of Defense? Part of the issue is that they have great satellite technology information, but it’s often secure. So what I guess I’m looking for is your leadership ability coming in and bringing agencies together as well as figuring out how to get the best information into public officials hands so that we can do a better job of helping people prepare. Because the technology is there to know the power of these storms.
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Senator one of the things I prided myself on in my business career is working in partnership with others. So in terms of whether it’s the weather or many, many other aspects of what the Commerce Department is engaged in – if I’m confirmed that would be something I would take very seriously and work hard to achieve – are good partnerships with other agencies and particularly on the area of the weather service.
Senator Cantwell: Thank you. And like Senator Cowan I can guarantee you fish are important. The late Ron Brown once said - he was Secretary of Commerce - but if a member of Congress was calling him he guaranteed it was about fish. I have the same concern and want to know what your thoughts are on the Bristol Bay Pebble Mine. It is at the head of one of the largest sockeye fisheries and the largest Chinook fishery, which are the headwaters for the Puget Sound salmon. So we want to make sure that you are going to be very adamant about good science leading the way to protecting against undue development that might impact those fisheries.
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Senator, I know the importance of salmon, you and I talked about that earlier, to your state and frankly to our country and to my dinner plate at times. Finding a balance to make sure we protect the salmon is very important to me. I don’t know the specifics of the mine situation but if I’m confirmed that would be something I would look into.
Senator Cantwell: What I’m interested in is whether you’ll have good science help engaged in the process?
Secretary of Commerce Nominee Penny Pritzker: Absolutely Senator. The importance of science and technology used throughout the agency is really important and particularly in that area.
Senator Cantwell: Okay. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Next Article Previous Article