WASHINGTON — The Polar Sea may never ply the frozen waters again. But the Seattle-based 1970s-era icebreaker got a reprieve from being scrapped for parts early Saturday when the Senate voted to delay the Coast Guard from decommissioning the ship.
As part of a flurry of roll call votes that lasted past 1 a.m., the Senate passed the Coast Guard reauthorization for fiscal 2012 and 2013. The bill contained a provision written by Sen. Maria Cantwell to prevent the Polar Sea — one of the nation’s only two heavy-duty icebreakers — from being junked permanently until a replacement ship is built.
The measure now heads to the House, where some Republicans have called for mothballing both icebreakers and to force the Coast Guard to more sharply define its Arctic mission.
The Polar Sea and its sister, the Polar Star, are docked in Seattle and currently out of service. The Coast Guard put the Polar Sea — four years past its expected 30-year service life — on inactive status last October with plans to raid it for parts to repair the Star.
The Polar Star, meanwhile, is nearing the end of a four-year overhaul at Vigor Industrial shipyards in West Seattle. It is scheduled to undergo testing next summer.
The Coast Guard’s third and only active cutter is the Healy, which can bust through thinner layers of ice. A fourth American icebreaker, the Palmer, is privately owned and leased by the the National Science Foundation.
The Coast Guard has argued it would need minimum of three heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers to maintain a constant presence in the Arctic to guard America’s economic, scientific and security interests. Congress has not appropriated money for any new icebreakers.
In a statement, Cantwell argued that hanging on to the Polar Sea, as decrepit as it may be, is the most prudent course:
“Icebreaking capacity is a matter of national security, and is vital to America’s interests in the Arctic,” Cantwell said. “This bill is a major step forward to strengthen America’s icebreaking fleet and support maritime jobs in the Puget Sound. The Senate Coast Guard bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea, as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers.”