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Jun 14 2012

Plan to dismantle Polar Sea icebreaker put on hold for now

Seattle Times – Alexa Vaughn

Plans to scrap one of the nation's two heavy icebreaker ships, the Seattle-based Polar Sea, have been put off for at least this year, according to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell's office.

As early as Monday, the Coast Guard was ready to have propellers and other core components ripped off the ship to sell or to use on the nation's only other heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is being refurbished at Harbor Island.

Cantwell was unsuccessful last year in efforts to snag congressional funding for the $30 million to $50 million needed to repair the decommissioned Polar Sea's engine, which made it difficult for the Coast Guard to justify the cost of keeping the ship.

But after a Wednesday meeting between lawmakers such as Cantwell and the Coast Guard's top official, Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr., the Coast Guard agreed not to dismantle the ship while other strategies for funding are pursued.

"This is good news for Washington shipbuilding jobs and for America's icebreaking capability," Cantwell said after the meeting. "The Polar Sea's hull is still in sound condition."

The hull is the costliest part of an icebreaker and the most time-intensive to build, according to former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, now vice president of Vigor Industrial (formerly Todd Shipyards). The shipyard has repaired both icebreakers in the past. Building a new one could take 10 years and cost $800 million to $1 billion, Baird said.

The United States currently has no working heavy icebreakers, typically used once a year to create a path into the usually ice-locked Northwest Passage. Since the 399-foot Polar Sea stopped working in 2010 and after the Polar Star was taken out for refurbishment, Swedish and Russian icebreakers have been leased to do the job.

Because icebreakers often need repair, Cantwell and Alaska's U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski oppose having just one heavy icebreaker because of both homeland-security and commercial concerns.

Ironically, demand for icebreakers has gone up in the presence of climate change because it has opened up new parts of the Arctic to oil drilling, fishing and tourism.

Though lawmakers are focused on finding more congressional funding for the icebreakers, Baird said, selling the repaired ship to a third party on terms that the U.S. could lease it back for emergencies could be another option looked into this year.

The Coast Guard has one other, less heavy-duty icebreaker, the Healy, which wasn't built to break through the thick ice of the Northwest Passage.