WASHINGTON — More than a year after she rescued it from the scrap heap, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is trying to get the Polar Sea icebreaker refurbished and returned to service.
Cantwell and fellow Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, on Friday said they are introducing a bill to authorize the U.S. Coast Guard to overhaul the 1970s-era heavy-duty icebreaker. Cantwell called the move essential to protect U.S. interests in the Arctic, where melting ice has opened up more opportunities for commercial and scientific exploration.
“This bill is an important step to ensure the Coast Guard has the tools it needs to protect America’s interests in the Arctic and meet its mission requirements,” Cantwell said in a statement about the Coast Guard Arctic Preparedness Act. “We can’t risk falling behind and jeopardizing our national security and economic potential.”
The Coast Guard had planned to mothball the Polar Sea and raid it for parts for its sister ship, the Polar Star. The Polar Star, which emerged from a four-year, $57 million overhaul in December 2012 at Seattle’s Vigor shipyard, is the nation’s only active heavy-duty icebreaker. A second vessel, the Healy, can break through thinner ice and is used mainly for research.
The Polar Sea is in worse shape than the Polar Star was. It would cost an estimated $100 million to repair the Polar Sea and get seven to 10 more years of service, according to a February 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service.
A report commissioned in 2010 by the Coast Guard said the service would need six heavy and four medium icebreakers to meet its mission.
Last year, Cantwell, Begich, Sen. Patty Murray and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called for Congress to build four new icebreakers. But that pricey amendment to the Defense Authorization bill — icebreakers can cost $850 million or more apiece — did not get a vote.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, also has pushed for bolstering American ice breaking capabilities.
The Polar Sea is docked at the Coast Guard base in Seattle’s Pier 36, just east of Vigor shipyard on Harbor Island. Cantwell said refurbishing the vessel would create hundreds of shipbuilding jobs.