Durbin urges Coast Guard to stay at airport

Lake County News-Sun
July 21, 2010
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Tuesday urged the Coast Guard to commit to keeping its helicopter station at Waukegan Regional Airport.

In a letter to Admiral Robert Papp Jr., Coast Guard commandant, Durbin said, "I have worked with the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee to deny this proposal and would encourage you to work with me and the committee as you decide the future Coast Guard mission in Waukegan."

Last week, the state's senior senator secured a legislative provision that will prevent the closure of the Waukegan-based Coast Guard helicopter station in the 2011 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Durbin is a member of that committee.

The Coast Guard has proposed the relocation of helicopter crews operating at the Coast Guard air facilities in Waukegan and Muskegon, Mich., to Air Station Traverse City.

While Durbin's provision would ensure that crews will continue operating at both the Waukegan and Muskegon facilities, a public commitment from the Coast Guard would reinforce that effort and ensure local community concerns would be addressed in any future plans, a spokesman for the senator said Tuesday.

"Moving a rescue helicopter to Traverse City will increase the time it will take to respond to emergencies in the Chicagoland area," Durbin said in the letter. "Maintaining this capability close to Chicago keeps rescue response times short and can save lives of Lake Michigan boaters."

The senator noted the Chicago area is home to significant recreational and commercial boat traffic.

"The Port of Waukegan, for example, serves U.S. and Canadian vessels bringing in over 600,000 tons of products to Illinois each year," Durbin said. "Thousands of recreational and charter vessels also use Lake Michigan every summer."

He said the Senate Appropriations Committee members recognized the importance of the helicopter station in Waukegan in the report accompanying the homeland security appropriations measure when they wrote: "The helicopters stationed at the air facilities in Muskegon, Mich., and Waukegan, Ill., are critical to the safety of Great Lakes mariners and recreational users. The Coast Guard is to work with the committee on the future missions of these air facilities."

The Waukegan Port District, which operates the harbor and airport, is behind Durbin's push to keep the Coast Guard facility operational.

"The Port District is committed to the safety and security of the Chicagoland maritime and aviation public," said Duncan Henderson, executive director. "We are most grateful of Sen. Durbin's assistance in maintaining the U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter in the Waukegan area. The presence of this helicopter assures the rapid response of the United States Coast Guard in this major metropolitan area."