Scrapping the Polar Sea stopped while lawmakers search for budgetary icebreaker

THE Seattle-based Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea was headed for the scrap heap on Monday, but persistent lawmakers from Washington and Alaska blocked the path toward demolition.

Nothing is certain about rebuilding the 399-foot Polar Sea, but the United States lacks the heavy ice-breaking capacity needed to protect national interests in the Arctic or Antarctica.

The U.S. must make the investments necessary to ensure the equipment and vessels are appropriate to the hazardous conditions, and changing economic and national-defense issues in the region.

At present the Coast Guard has one operational icebreaker, the Healy, a medium icebreaker outfitted for scientific research. The crew of the Healy received a commendation for its help to deliver fuel to Nome, Alaska, in January.

The Coast Guard's only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is being overhauled in Seattle.

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, had all leaned on the Coast Guard to hold demolition of the Polar Sea until all options for refurbishing it were exhausted.

Last week, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard's top official, agreed the icebreaker would not be dismantled until all funding options were examined. The ship's hull, the most costly and time-consuming part to build, is reported in sound condition.

Local officials with Vigor Industrial in Seattle, which has worked on both the Polar Star and Polar Sea, put the cost of a new icebreaker at $800 million to $1 billion; the work takes a decade.

Refurbishing the Polar Sea would trim costs and time. Not scrapping the icebreaker preserves an option, as lawmakers and the Coast Guard look for money.

"We are glad the Coast Guard has agreed to postpone the scrapping of the valuable icebreaker," Cantwell said. "This is good news for Washington shipbuilding jobs and for America's ice-breaking capability."

The potential boon to local employment is a definite plus, but those jobs also represent a concerted response to a gaping hole in the nation's ability to represent its interests in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Now the U.S. relies on others, and that is a serious failure to manage our own security and commercial responsibilities.