Amid growing political pressure, the U.S. Navy secretary yesterday reversed his recent directive that ended Baltimore's so-called home port status. The reversal made Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s BethShip yard again eligible for most Navy repair work.
In a letter to members of Maryland's congressional delegation, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton said that he was reinstating the long-standing home port status for Baltimore and Portland, Ore. The secretary gave no reason for reversing his June 21 decision.
His decision, however, had produced a strong outcry from Maryland's congressional delegation, which insisted that even the relatively small amount of Navy repair work at BethShip is critical to the struggling shipyard's viability.
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee, acting on a $242 billion spending bill for the Defense Department, approved an amendment that effectively blocked the Navy policy.
The House was expected to consider a similar budget amendment this week. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich intervened on Baltimore's behalf, urging the secretary of defense to reconsider the policy.
Mr. Dalton had said that companies bidding on short-term ship repairs -- those that take less than six months -- could be no farther than 75 miles from the ship's base. Previously the distance had been 165 miles.
The decision stemmed from the desire to reduce the time that sailors must spend away from home. Ships must be manned even while they are dry-docked for repair.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Ross said yesterday that Navy regulations will be changed so that time spent away on dry dock repairs will be counted as time at sea, thus reducing the overall period a sailor is required to be away from home.
The home port status for Baltimore is being reinstated indefinitely, he said.
The change had prohibited the Sparrows Point shipyard from bidding on most Navy jobs since those ships are usually based in Norfolk, Va. Companies in Portland, Ore., were similarly prohibited from bidding on work in Washington state's Puget Sound.
The policy had been in effect since 1986. During that time, the status helped bring nearly $68 million worth of work to BethShip, Baltimore's only remaining major shipyard.
The home port policy had affected most Navy repair work but left the shipyard free to bid on Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration ships.
"The Navy is a big part of the government market," BethShip spokesman Ted Baldwin said yesterday. "It's always had good potential."
Mr. Baldwin said that the company will bid immediately on repair work for a Navy rescue ship and that it intends to submit bids on repair work for three other Navy ships in the near future.
Although Navy work represents only one-fifth of overall repair contracts in the past decade at BethShip, its contribution has been increasingly important with other business scarce. BethShip President Dave Watson warned that the shipyard's survival could hinge on home port status.
During its heyday in the mid-1970s, BethShip's Sparrows Point yard built five supertankers, employing 4,000 workers. As shipbuilding work vanished, the facility diversified into tunnel construction and ship repair work.