New Icebreaker on the Way as Cantwell Probes Coast Guard Budget

Coast Guard Commandant: We hope to start cutting steel in the next year

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Today, in a hearing before the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Senate Subcommittee U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pressed Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft on the status of icebreaker funding in the Navy budget. The Admiral revealed that a new icebreaker is included in the upcoming Coast Guard budget and that a contract to begin immediate construction will be awarded the next year.

Cantwell has been a leader in calling for the recapitalization of our nation’s aging icebreaker fleet. The Senator has called for the Navy to fund the $1 billion dollar vessel, $150 of which will be in the Administration’s Budget Request, according to the Commandant.

Earlier this month, the White House proposed drastic cuts to the Coast Guard’s budget, prompting fears that the polar icebreaker program may be impacted. Admiral Zukunft’s statement today removes doubt that the U.S. will soon commission its first heavy duty icebreaker in four decades.

“First we saw a skinny budget and then a new proposal but we didn’t really see the transparency with the Coast Guard. So with a lot of Coast Guard communities represented here, places where the Coast Guard’s so critical, we just want to understand what’s in the budget proposal and what we have to fight extra hard for that’s not,” said Senator Cantwell. “Is there in the budget support for a new icebreaker?”

Admiral Zukunft replied that with the Senate’s appropriation, “we can accelerate the timeline… and ideally award a contract to start cutting steel in the next year.”

The United States has only two operational polar icebreakers. This is well short of the minimum three heavy and three medium icebreakers needed to fulfill mission requirements and far behind the fast growing fleets other Arctic nations, including Russia. Icebreakers are increasingly crucial as melting Polar Regions open the Arctic for shipping, tourism, and potential resource extraction.  Without new icebreakers, the U.S. will be reliant on countries like Russia to rescue our nations’ ships, respond to environmental emergencies like oil spills, and monitor American economic and national security interests in the region.

For the last decade, Cantwell has been a leading voice for strengthening the United States polar icebreaker fleet. In addition to fighting to secure funding for a new vessel, Cantwell spearheaded a bipartisan letter calling for more robust funding for the Coast Guard in Fiscal Year 2017, and successfully urged President Obama to include funds in his fiscal year 2017 budget for a new icebreaker.

Cantwell: Coast Guard in SW WA Needs Better Medical Care, and Fast

Cantwell used the opportunity to question Zukunft on other Washington state issues. She has continuously pressured the Coast Guard to provide better medical care to Coasties and their families in Southwest Washington and Northern Oregon. The Senator questioned Zukunft on what processes the Coast Guard was using to address the problem.

“I was just out in Cape Disappointment meeting with fisherman in Ilwaco and the Coast Guard was good enough to show up…The analysis is that there’s only seven nurse practitioners and one doctor available to see Coast Guard patients in under a one month period of time. I want to understand what processes we need to go through to get the men and women of the Coast Guard access to timely health care.”

Admiral Zukunft committed to further working with Senator Cantwell to address the health care issues of Coasties in Southwest Washington.

In addition, the Senator asked what the Coast Guard had allotted for addressing oil spill prevention and response due to increased tanker traffic in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Zukunft acknowledged that funding for spill response and prevention was “modest,” but was one of his highest priorities.