NOAA terminates contract with VT Halter

Published 1:53 pm Friday, July 16, 2010

A Pascagoula shipyard says it’s working to lift a termination order from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prompted by a dispute over construction of a coastal mapping ship.

Bill Skinner, chief executive of VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, said NOAA terminated its latest contract for a 110-foot ocean and coastal mapping vessel, the SWATH Ferdinand R. Hassler.

Skinner said the vessel is 98-percent complete and has undergone sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Hassler is named after the first superintendent of the U.S. Survey of the Coast. Ferdinand Hassler took the position in 1816. After the survey was moved from the Navy to the Army in 1818, Hassler went to other duties, but returned in 1832 when the survey was returned to the Navy and remained the superintendent until 1843.

Skinner said the dispute with NOAA is over how much weight the vessel could carry.

According to NOAA, Halter built a ship that is too heavy to fit in its intended port, currently 17.8 tons overweight, and unable to fulfill the coastal mapping for which it is being built.

“NOAA repeatedly worked with Halter to address the deficiencies and provided the company numerous opportunities to meet the requirements,” said Mitchell J. Ross, director of the NOAA Acquisition and Grants office.

Ross said Wednesday they had no choice but to terminate the contract “for failure to perform.”

Skinner said both sides are trying to resolve the problem, but there’s a possibility “that someone else will finish the job.”

Ross said it’s more than a possibility.

“We will complete a detailed assessment of the vessel and plan to correct the ship’s deficiencies with another shipyard and commission the ship into service,” he said.

Halter employs 1,600 at three shipyards in Jackson County and has a $1 billion backlog of work to do for the U.S. Navy.

“We look forward to resolving the dispute with NOAA. This is very important to us, our reputation for good quality vessels,” Skinner said.

Halter built four ships for NOAA before taking on the Hassler in a separate contract, Skinner said. He described the Hassler as a much smaller vessel that “performed outstandingly” during its sea trials.

“Its speed and sea-keeping characteristics exceeded our original expectations,” he said.

What became crucial was how much water the vessel draws with weight that NOAA expects to add to it over the 25-year life of the ship.

“We’re talking about a few inches,” Skinner said.

He said Halter’s backlog of Navy projects should take the company through 2013. If it fails to receive final payments from NOAA, that won’t affect jobs at the yards.