Aug 18 2011

Cantwell: Refurbishing Seattle-based Coast Guard Icebreaking Vessel Could Save Taxpayer Dollars, Bring Jobs to WA State

Cantwell, Begich urge Coast Guard to postpone decommissioning until analysis required by law is performed to determine most cost-effective way to revitalize aging fleet The Polar Sea is one of only two heavy duty icebreakers left in U.S. fleet critical to protecting national security, economic i

SEATTLE, WA – Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) urged the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to postpone decommissioning the icebreaker Polar Sea until an analysis is completed to determine the most cost-effective way to revitalize the aging polar icebreaker fleet based and serviced in Seattle.

Cantwell was instrumental in securing the language in the 2010 Coast Guard Reauthorization Act that required the Coast Guard to evaluate the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus refurbishing the existing vessels, which could save taxpayer dollars. Both scenarios would bring hundreds of jobs to the Puget Sound area. Refurbishing an icebreaking vessel can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Rebuilding the vessel can take roughly eight years and employ more than 1,000 workers.

Seattle-based Vigor Shipyards (formerly Todd Shipyards Corp.) currently has a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract with the Coast Guard for upgrade work on the Polar Sea’s sister ship, the Polar Star icebreaker. Both Polar Star and Polar Sea were commissioned in 1977 and built in Seattle by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company, which was purchased by Lockheed in 1959.

Cantwell and Begich wrote in a letter sent today to USCG Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr. “As chair and former chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries Atmosphere and Coast Guard, we urge the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to postpone decommissioning of the icebreaker Polar Sea (WAGB 11) and retain it in caretaker status while the Administration considers options for fulfilling the nation’s critical icebreaking missions, including a business case analysis required by the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010.

Decommissioning Polar Sea would leave the U.S. with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years in ‘caretaker’ status, when the vessel is out of active service but still receives routine upkeep and maintenance. The United States Navy has no icebreaking capability.

The Coast Guard needs a minimum of six heavy duty icebreakers and an additional four medium icebreakers to meet Coast Guard and Navy mission requirements, according to a recent Coast Guard study.

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, opening new passageways through the Arctic ice, which creates national security, law enforcement and maritime safety concerns. Additionally, emerging environmental protection concerns, potential resource development and scientific research critical to understanding global climate change require vessels capable of polar operations. Historically, these vessels have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica, but over the last few years the U.S. has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to fulfill this national need.

“Despite the undeniable and growing need for icebreaker capability, the Coast Guard plans to decommission one of only two heavy-duty icebreaking cutters in the U.S. fleet, the Polar Sea,” the Senators wrote. “We believe this lack of icebreaking capacity is unacceptable. While the Polar Sea has served beyond its expected service life and recently suffered engine failure, we also understand from Coast Guard and private sector engineers that the hull of the Polar Sea is still sound and may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rebuilding the vessel based on that hull would be considerably less than building a replacement vessel from the keel up. We think it is premature to scrap the potentially valuable asset.”

The complete text of the letter sent today follows.

Admiral Robert J. Papp

Commandant, United States Coast Guard  

Headquarters

2100 2nd St. SW Stop 7000

Washington, D.C. 20593-7000

Dear Admiral Papp:

As chair and former chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries Atmosphere and Coast Guard, we urge the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to postpone decommissioning of the icebreaker Polar Sea (WAGB 11) and retain it in caretaker status while the Administration considers options for fulfilling the nation’s critical icebreaking missions, including a business case analysis required by the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010.

The Coast Guard is required by 14 U.S.C. § 2 to develop, establish, maintain, and operate icebreaking assets to promote safety in U.S. waters and also in non-U.S. waters pursuant to international agreements.  Additionally, in its Fiscal Year 2008 report to Congress the USCG noted America has enduring interests in the Polar Regions including national security, law enforcement, maritime safety, scientific research, economic sustainability, and environmental protection, which requires assets capable of polar operations to protect these interests and maintain a sovereign presence.

The need for icebreaking capability has been highlighted by the Coast Guard on numerous occasions. You testified about the need for icebreaker assets at the July 27, 2011 hearing on the emerging economic interests of the Arctic before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries Atmosphere and Coast Guard.  The recently released “High Latitude” mission analysis found the statutory requirements of the USCG required a total of six icebreakers, three-heavy and three-medium duty, and an additional four icebreakers to maintain the continuous presence requirements of the Naval Operations Concept.

Despite the undeniable and growing need for icebreaker capability, the Coast Guard plans to decommission one of only two heavy-duty icebreaking cutters in the U.S. fleet, the Polar Sea. This leaves the U.S. with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy (WAGB 20).  A second icebreaker, the Polar Star (WAGB 10), is currently being refitted for service after years in caretaker status.

We believe this lack of icebreaking capacity is unacceptable.  While the Polar Sea has served beyond its expected service life and recently suffered engine failure, we also understand from Coast Guard and private sector engineers that the hull of the Polar Sea is still sound and may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  Rebuilding the vessel based on that hull would be considerably less than building a replacement vessel from the keel up.  We think it is premature to scrap the potentially valuable asset. 

The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-281) requires the Coast Guard complete a Business Case analysis to determine the most cost effective method to address the Coast Guard’s aging fleet needs while maximizing taxpayer dollars. This comparative cost-benefit analysis will determine if the Coast Guard should replace or perform service-life extensions on its two existing heavy-duty icebreaking ships, including the Polar Sea. Without the benefit of this required analysis, the Coast Guard should not begin decommissioning a vessel before results from this study become available.

We recognize the nation is facing severe, across-the-board federal budget cuts and icebreakers are expensive assets.  It is clearly not prudent to decommission Polar Sea at this time.  We urge the Coast Guard to utilize FY2011 funding currently slated for the decommissioning expenses to maintain the vessel in caretaker status such as “In Commission - Special” status until completion of the Business Case analysis of Coast Guard icebreaker needs, review of the High Latitude study conclusions, and further Congressional consideration.

As you noted in your 2011 State of the Coast Guard address, our nation has significant strategic interests in the emerging Arctic.  The diminishing ice pack has spurred an increase in Arctic maritime and other activity which means increased Coast Guard responsibilities.  Yet we don’t have the ability and the resources to operate as effectively as we need to.  We agree when you said, “If we are serious about protecting our Arctic national interests and resources, then we must make the investment to do so.”

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell                                                Mark Begich

United States Senator                                      United States Senator 

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