News: CJ Exclusives

‘Bite Me’ Benefits From Obama Stimulus Funds

With Basnight’s help, fishing boats deemed ‘shovel ready’ by DENR

“Bite Me,” a charter fishing boat based at the Hatteras Harbor Marina in Dare County, was one of 14 fishing boats on the North Carolina coast to receive thousands of dollars to replace their diesel engines under President Obama’s stimulus program.

The purpose of the funds, administered by the state’s Marine Diesel Equipment Repower program, was to improve air quality by reducing diesel emissions, though the boats operate in an area of the state not known for air-quality problems.

In addition to the colorfully named “Bite Me,” also receiving funds for engine replacement under the 2009 stimulus program were “Harper’s Folly,” “Endless Pursuit,” “Net Results,” “Hopeful,” and nine other fishing vessels. (See chart below for all grant recipients.)

“Bite Me” owner Jay Kavanagh received $65,886 in public funds for a new diesel motor for the 51-foot charter boat based at the Hatteras Harbor Marina in Dare County. Kavanagh’s award amounted to one-half the cost of purchasing and installing a new Caterpillar 2009 model year motor. The new motor ran cleaner than the 2000 version that had powered his boat.

The largest Marine Diesel grant was $93,000 to replace the engine in Bald Eagle II, a commercial fishing vessel owned by the Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant in Wanchese.

New information about the use of stimulus funding comes as the White House and congressional leaders are deadlocked over proposals to avoid a potential default on more than $14 trillion in government debt.

The Marine Diesel program required each grant recipient both to provide half the funds for the engine swaps and — like the multibillion-dollar “Cash for Clunkers” program that paid drivers to retire and then destroy used cars — to guarantee that the old engine was scrapped instead of being rebuilt or reused.

The Division of Air Quality in the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources administered the federal money. With the exception of recent forest fires in Hyde and Dare counties, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are not known to have air-quality issues. The state has permanent air pollution monitors at 74 locations, but none are located in the counties where the fishing boats are based.

The Outer Banks website described the air situation this way: “Dare County lacks the major industries or other sources of toxic release emitters that could negatively impact our air quality. Combined with the sea breezes our location provides, ambient air quality problems are a rare occurrence.”

‘Shovel ready’ projects

In February 2009, a Democratic-controlled U. S. Congress approved the stimulus package. Obama signed the measure into law Feb. 17. The money flowed through several federal departments, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA solicited grant proposals from the states.

Before Obama was inaugurated, he sold the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus plan, with promises that it would focus on “shovel-ready” projects. He said adding nearly $1 trillion to the federal deficit was justified, as his plans would concentrate on repairing highways and other infrastructure, upgrading energy efficiency, and improving schools and hospitals.

Instead, only 15 percent of the money has gone to transportation projects, according to the Government Accountability Office, which is monitoring the spending. Another 59.1 percent has gone to state governments to underwrite Medicaid and keep government workers (primarily teachers) employed.

North Carolina’s interest in the program was spurred by James Curles, owner of Just Right Auto & Marine, a diesel sales and boat maintenance company in Wanchese. Curles, who sold some of the engines and performed some of the engine swaps, eventually benefited from the program.

Curles told Carolina Journal that a business acquaintance in Maine told him that federal stimulus money was available to help replace older marine diesel engines. Curles contacted then-state Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, to inquire if North Carolina could set up a similar program. Basnight’s office referred Curles to the DAQ, where he began discussing the project with grant administrator Ann Galamb.

Galamb told CJ that the Marine Diesel project was part of a proposal that she helped develop and the EPA approved. DAQ received approximately $1.1 million “to solicit and select worthy ‘shovel ready’ projects to reduce mobile emissions from diesel engines.” In addition to the 14 fishing boats, DAQ selected seven school systems, four city governments, and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to receive grants to reduce diesel emissions.

“Bite Me” owner Kavanagh sent his grant application April 14, just two months after the stimulus became law. “It was good timing,” he told CJ. “It [the motor] would have had to be rebuilt,” and the federal money reduced his out-of-pocket costs.

Kavanagh told CJ he learned of the grant program from Curles. Curles said he knew many boat owners in the region and distributed about 200 grant applications to those he thought might need a new motor. “I knew people who needed this money,” he said. “They [the federal government] are going to continue to waste money. I think this money went to a good place.”

Galamb said her office received 59 applications. The Mobile Source Emissions Grant Review Committee selected the 14 recipients. She said the new engines would pollute less than older ones, but acknowledged DAQ doesn’t have monitoring stations in the region where the boats operate. “The main benefit will be to the local user [the owner of the boat],” she said.

According to the Wildlife Resources Commission, another DENR agency, more than 300,000 boats are registered in North Carolina. CJ was unable to determine how many are powered by diesel engines.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.