Congress Passes Cantwell Amendments to Protect Seattle-based Icebreaker, Improve Tsunami Debris Cleanup

Senate passes Coast Guard bill, goes to President Obama’s desk for signature

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Late last night, Congress passed several amendments authored by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to protect Washington state’s coastal economy and environment, and to maintain the nation’s capability to deploy icebreaker vessels, as part of the Coast Guard authorization bill. The bill, The Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 (HR 2838), has already passed the House and now heads to the President’s desk for his signature.

Cantwell wrote and successfully fought to include three amendments to the bill that will have a significant impact on Washington state. These amendments will:

  • Prohibit the Coast Guard from decommissioning the Seattle-based icebreaker Polar Sea unless the Coast Guard conducts a study showing that scrapping the vessel is the most cost-effective option and provides a plan to meet the nation’s need for additional icebreakers;
  • Require the Coast Guard to conduct a study within 180 days to examine the risk additional tar sands oil supertanker, tanker and barge traffic poses to the Salish Sea – including the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, Haro, and Rosario Straits –and study the best way to clean up a spill of tar sands oil; and
  • Creates a plan and direct the marine debris interagency task force to coordinate cleanup of tsunami debris, if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director finds the level of debris to be a “severe marine debris event.” The NOAA Administrator would have to make this designation within 30 days of the bill being signed into law.

A summary of the Cantwell amendments is below:


Cantwell’s icebreaker amendment prohibits the Coast Guard from scrapping the Polar Sea icebreaker until it submits a plan for maintaining the nation’s icebreaker capability and proves that scrapping the vessel is the most cost-effective option.  

“Icebreakers are critical to our national security and America’s interests in the Arctic,” said Cantwell. “As commerce in the Arctic continues to increase, our nation’s need for icebreakers will continue to grow. This bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea and supports shipbuilding jobs in the Puget Sound as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers.”

Refurbishing a large icebreaking vessel like the Polar Sea can take roughly five years and employ upwards of 300 workers. Building a new vessel can take eight to ten years and employs more than 1,000 workers.

The Polar Sea is currently docked in Seattle and was scheduled to be dismantled in early 2013, after a planned 2012 dismantling was postponed thanks to an agreement with the Coast Guard Cantwell helped secure in June. Scrapping the Polar Sea would leave the United States with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which only has medium icebreaking capability. The Polar Sea’s sister ship, the Polar Star, is currently being refurbished after years in inactive or caretaker status.

Melting polar ice caps are opening new passageways through the Arctic ice and creating new opportunities for trade and international commerce. 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 United States Navy currently has no icebreaking capability.

Cantwell and U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA-02) have repeatedly made the case for strengthening the nation’s fleet of polar icebreakers and for protecting the Polar Sea. As the ranking Democrat on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, Larsen has convened hearings and authored legislation to protect the vessels and led efforts in the House to pass this bill.

In September 2011, Cantwell and Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) introduced legislation to prevent the decommissioning and scrapping of the Polar Sea, called The Preserve Our Large Arctic Response Capability (POLAR-C) Act of 2011


Another Cantwell provision within the Coast Guard bill orders the Administrator of NOAA to form an interagency task force to develop a tsunami debris cleanup plan, if the debris constitutes a “severe marine debris event.” Within 30 days of the bill becoming
law, the NOAA Administrator must determine if the Japanese tsunami produced a “severe marine debris event.”

The action plan would make tsunami debris cleanup more effective by coordinating and directing all debris removal in Washington state and across the West Coast. In addition to the action plan, NOAA would also complete a comprehensive analysis about the debris’ economic and environmental impacts, and when and where it will arrive. This will give Washington state coastal communities the information they need to understand the local impact of debris and how to best prepare for its arrival and removal.

“Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and nearly $11 billion in economic activity,” said Cantwell, “Washington coastal communities are already facing the impacts of tsunami debris. We need the federal government to be an active leader and partner in developing comprehensive tsunami debris research, mitigation and cleanup plans.”

In addition to pushing for a debris removal plan, Cantwell also is working to secure federal support for cleanup. On December 10, Cantwell joined five other senators in a bipartisan request for a $20 million federal investment for debris removal in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.


The Coast Guard bill contains a Cantwell amendment that directs the Coast Guard to complete a study about the impacts of higher levels of oil supertanker, tanker and barge traffic from Canada off Washington state’s coast. According to reports, Canada is poised to increase oil tanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by up to 300 percent.

The tar sands study and risk analysis would need to be completed within 180 days of the bill becoming law.

“A supertanker oil spill near our shores would threaten Washington state’s thriving coastal economy and thousands of jobs,” said Cantwell. “This bill will provide crucial information for Washington coastal communities by requiring a detailed risk analysis within 180 days.”

The Coast Guard study would include:

  • A risk assessment for transporting tar sands oil via supertanker, tanker and barge through the Salish Sea waterways;
  • An assessment of whether transportation of tar sands would require navigation through American waters, and which rules and regulations apply to supertankers in U.S. waters compared to Canadian waters;
  • An analysis of the properties of tar sands oil, which are likely different than other types of oil and therefore could require special cleanup technology;
  • The spill response capability throughout the shared waters of the United states and Canada; and,
  • The potential costs and benefits to the American public of maritime transportation of Canadian tar sands oil.
  • An analysis of how much vessel traffic will increase in the region due to tar sands development;