Seattle will continue to be the home port for the Coast Guard’s heavy icebreakers in the next decade as shipyards build a new class of “Polar Security” cutters.
“The Pacific Northwest has been the home of our icebreaking fleet since 1976, and I am confident that the Seattle area will continue to carry out our critical operations in the polar regions,” Adm. Karl Schultz, U.S. Coast Guard commandant, wrote in a statement released Monday announcing the decision.
The first of the new class of vessels is projected to be delivered from the VT Halter Marine shipyard in Mississippi by 2024, and the contract award includes options to build two more. The overall costs for the three vessels would be about $2.95 billion, including shipyard contracts and other expenses, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
The Coast Guard statement said the new U.S. heavy icebreakers “will support the United States’ ability to conduct national missions, respond to critical events, and project American presence in the high latitudes.”
The Coast Guard currently has two polar icebreakers in Seattle: the Polar Star, considered capable of breaking heavy ice, and the Healy, considered a medium polar icebreaker.
The Polar Star is well beyond its 30-year service life and has suffered from a series of serious breakdowns and other problems.
“This is the only heavy icebreaker the United States has. We’re the ones that have to do the mission.” said Lt. Cmdr. Karen Kutkiewicz, who steered the ship through the ice on a trip earlier this year to resupply Antarctica’s McMurdo Station and was interviewed as the vessel returned to Seattle in March. “This is 43 years old. This takes a lot of TLC.”
On Feb. 10, in waters off McMurdo Station, a fire broke out on the Polar Star, which resulted in damage to an incinerator, several electrical systems and shipboard insulation. During that cruise, the 150 crew members also had to contend with a leaking shaft that drivers a propeller and a nine-hour failure in the power system.
The Polar Star may be retired in 2022. So, at least through 2024, when the first of the new heavy icebreakers arrives, there would not be an increase in icebreakers based in Seattle.
But that could change over time.
The Coast Guard also has concluded that “based on operational and logistical needs,” Seattle is the “appropriate” home port for the next two heavy icebreakers as they are completed, according to the statement released by Schultz.
The U.S. icebreaking capacity is dwarfed by that of the Russian government.
The Russian government icebreaker fleet, as of 2017, totaled more than 25 vessels of varying capacities, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell has pushed for years to secure funding for new icebreakers in a century when climate change is forecast to greatly increase vessel traffic in Arctic waters.
“This is great news,” Cantwell said Monday in a statement about the port decision. “The Puget Sound region supports a cutting-edge maritime workforce, which is poised to meet the needs of these new world-class vessels.
The Coast Guard also plans to build three medium icebreakers. It has not been determined where they would be homeported.