UPDATE: Two of our Coast Guard vessels on thin ice

By:  Steve Shay
Source: West Seattle Herald

This is a tail of America's only two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Star, dry-docked for refurbishing at Vigor (formerly Todd) Shipyard on Harbor Island, and, in a sadder state of condition, the Polar Sea, docked at the Pier 36 Coast Guard base. Both are 399-feet, the Star commissioned in 1976, the Sea a year later. While Congress may decommission both for cost concerns, Senator Maria Cantwell wants both back in action with the possibility of new vessels to eventually replace them.

Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard is rehabbing the Star, and intends to mothball the Sea.

"The (Polar) Star is going to get a new engine and be fully refurbished, I believe, by the end of 2012, or 2013," Chief Robert K. Lanier told the West Seattle Herald. He is Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Thirteenth Coast Guard District.

"The (Polar) Sea is in a 'commissioned but inactive status' which is usually what occurs before the decommissioning of the vessel," he added. "It's still a commissioned vessel but will not be conducting any operational missions for the Coast Guard. The plan is to decommission that vessel."

Lanier said the Coast Guard cannot comment on the discussion Congress is having, and that "it would be inappropriate to state our feelings" on the matter.

Last week the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a two-year Coast Guard authorization bill that included an amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell barring the service from decommissioning the Polar Sea. Cantwell’s language was incorporated into the Maritime Administration Authorization Act of 2011 which requires the Coast Guard to maintain the current icebreaker fleet stationed in Seattle.

Cantwell passed another amendment approved in committee last week incorporated into the Maritime Administration Authorization Act that also requires the Coast Guard to maintain its icebreaking fleet. But the stipulation there is that for a two year period from the date Congress receives the business case analysis from the Coast Guard, expected next week, the Coast Guard cannot dismantle or decommission the vessels.

The analysis evaluates the costs and benefits of building new vessels versus refurbishing the existing vessels. Both scenarios could 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. That, according to the Senator.

On Nov. 2 when Cantwell introduced and secured passage of an amendment to address the threat approaching tsunami debris poses to industries up and down Washington’s coastline, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, she also urged lawmakers to consider the importance of our icebreaking fleet.

"“We are seeing an approach by OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to literally dismantle and defund the current icebreaker system,” said Cantwell at that hearing. “Our nation needs icebreakers. If a major oil spill happens, I don’t know how the Russians or the Chinese are going to respond to their care of the Arctic in the same way I think we would as the United States. With Russia moving many troops to the Arctic, and Chinese investors buying parts of Greenland, this is also a national security issue (…) The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, opening new passageways through the Arctic ice, which creates national security, law enforcement, shipping, transportation, and maritime safety concerns. Additionally, emerging environmental protection concerns, resource development and scientific research critical to understanding global climate change, require vessels capable of polar operations. Historically, icebreakers have also helped resupply the McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica, but over the last few years the U.S. has been forced to contract foreign icebreaking to fulfill this national need."


Congressional Republicans want the U.S. Coast Guard to eliminate two large icebreakers docked in Seattle, the Polar Sea, and Polar Star docked on Harbor Island. They want to mothball the Polar Sea in six months, and to decommission the Polar Star which is currently being overhauled, in three years, with the possibility of building new vessels.

Climatologists, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, believe the Polar Star is critical for the task of reaching areas surrounded by thinning ice, both for humanity, and scientific reasons.

Congress received an independent analysis of whether the Coast Guard should build new icebreakers or keep going with its two aged vessels in October.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard website, the "CGC POLAR STAR (WAGB-10) is a United States Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker. Commissioned in 1976, the ship was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle, Washington along with her sister ship, POLAR SEA (WAGB-11)."