Norwich - The possibility of closing the Naval Submarine Base in Groton may have local officials worried, but U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., assured business leaders Monday that the idea is dead on arrival.
Blumenthal, speaking before about 100 people during a breakfast meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut at the Holiday Inn, said he believes Navy Secretary Ray Mabus would not support a proposal to eliminate the base.
"I asked the secretary of the Navy about the strategic importance of the base and he was very positive, not only publicly but in private conversation," Blumenthal said after his speech.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn warned a generally hostile House Armed Services Committee last week that any attempts to thwart a new round of base closings would be futile. If Congress refuses to authorize a new Base Closure and Realignment Commission, she said, the Pentagon would act on its own.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, seeking to drastically reduce his budget to comply with austerity measures, has called for two rounds of base closings, one in 2013 and another two years later.
But state lawmakers, worried the ax will fall on the Groton base as has been proposed two times in the past, are working hard to head off another round of closings. Blumenthal said Connecticut's delegation, including U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is putting up a united front.
"It's really important for the area," said William A. Stanley, who chairs the chamber's board.
Business leaders say the possible base closure weighs more heavily on the local economy than the current downsizing of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.
Blumenthal said Mabus mentioned the millions of dollars in investments that Connecticut has kicked in over the past few years to make improvements at the submarine base. Mabus also acknowledged the unique synergy that the base has with nearby Electric Boat, which builds submarines for the Navy, Blumenthal said.
The state's junior senator also said he has received positive vibes in conversations with Mabus about the possibility of pushing ahead with a production schedule at EB that would maintain a two-subs-a-year quota through 2017. Because of budget constraints, the Navy had been poised to reduce sub production to one in 2014, then go back to a two-subs schedule through 2018.
"We're having ongoing discussions that leave the door open (to maintaining two-sub production)," Blumenthal said.
Robert Hamilton, an EB spokesman who attended the chamber meeting, said the shipyard supports maintaining the two-subs schedule because it would reduce retraining, procurement and labor costs, which are passed along to the Navy. He wouldn't give a figure for how much the Navy would save by maintaining the two-subs schedule, but a report in the April edition of National Defense magazine puts the number at nearly $600 million.
Addressing other military-related concerns, Blumenthal said he wants to get more help for veterans, including those who return home with battlefield injuries and the "invisible wounds" that accompany such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder. He also wants to fund employment counseling and other efforts that would aid younger veterans who have a jobless rate of 15.5 percent, nearly double Connecticut's current unemployment rate.
"We have to do a better job of getting them jobs when they get home," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal also said he had written U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder over the weekend asking for an investigation and possible prosecution related to illegal speculation in the energy markets that has driven up the price of gasoline at the pumps for millions of Americans.
He said studies have shown speculation is responsible for as much as 60 cents in the price per gallon of gas, while about 85 percent of oil-futures contracts are currently being bought by people with no intention of taking delivery on the product.
"These prices are crushing to consumers," he said.