GAO official says Coast Guard Rescue 21 project at risk

One of the Coast Guard's major upcoming IT programs?the $101 million Rescue 21 coastal communication system?faces risks because it requires the construction of 330 coastline towers, a senior Government Accountability Office official said at a congressional hearing yesterday.

"A successful system would help almost all Coast Guard missions, but to develop it the Coast Guard must build more than 300 towers along the nation's coasts, some of them in environmentally sensitive areas," Margaret T. Wrightson, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, said in prepared testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation's Subcommittee on Fisheries and Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard must identify locations for the towers in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which assesses the environmental impact of such construction in coastal areas supporting migratory birds and other wildlife.

"The NEPA process represents the Rescue 21 program's greatest risk," Wrightson said. The agency may encounter environmental problems with the sites if they disturb habitats for birds or if "birds can fly into the towers or their supporting wires," she added.

To help address these concerns, the Coast Guard has agreed to install lighting on the towers to make them visible at night to the birds, and to amend construction design to eliminate support wires. The Coast also supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' studies to develop strategies to prevent the birds from flying into the towers, the GAO said.

To be effective, the towers must be spaced apart at certain distances to provide adequate coverage. Thus, "if one tower must be moved for environmental reasons, neighboring towers may also have to be moved, leading to a potential for schedule slippage, if additional sites must be identified and developed," Wrightson said in her testimony.

Wrightson also expressed concern about the Coast Guard's $966 million Integrated Deepwater System, which will replace and modernize the agency's deteriorating aircraft and cutters.

"GAO reviews of this program have shown that the Coast Guard clearly needs new or upgraded assets, but the Coast Guard's contracting approach carries a number of inherent risks that, left unaddressed, could lead to spiraling costs and slipped schedules," Wrightson said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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