American shipyards urge Congress to protect U.S. Arctic security by returning 'perfectly sound and capable' icebreakers to active service
Vigor Industrial Exec Says Two Coast Guard Vessels Can Be Restored to Patrol the Arctic in Two Years
WASHINGTON, DC (Dec. 5, 2011) - The Polar Sea heavy icebreaker that the U.S. Coast Guard plans to mothball is in excellent condition and could be returned to active service in two years, giving the government a decade or more to search for longer-term solutions, a representative of America's shipyards told Congress last week.
The United States currently has no active heavy icebreakers and only one medium vessel to protect rapidly intensifying national security and economic interests in the Arctic and Antarctic.
"We must have the capability to complete the vital missions our polar icebreakers have performed for decades," said David Whitcomb, speaking for the Shipbuilders Council of America, told the House Transportation subcommittee on the Coast Guard in a hearing on Dec. 1. Whitcomb is chief operating officer of Vigor Industrial, whose subsidiary Vigor Shipyards is restoring the Polar Star icebreaker even as the Coast Guard moves to mothball the nearly identical Polar Sea sister ship docked nearby.
"We do believe there is a need to build new heavy icebreakers, and we urge Congress and the Administration to work together to quickly authorize and fund such a project," Whitcomb testified. But, he added, "for just over 1 percent of the cost of a new vessel, and at a two-year versus ten-year minimum horizon, the United States of America would have a second fully functioning heavy icebreaker able to complete vital missions under our own flag for at least a decade or more.
"The hulls and frames of the Polar Star and the Polar Sea are perfectly sound and capable," Whitcomb added. He estimated it would take $11 million to replace Polar Sea's engine and bring the icebreaker to an operational level.
The vessel was extensively overhauled in recent years, so other additional upgrades would be minimal, retired Coast Guard icebreaker commanding officer Rear Adm. Jeffrey Garrett told the committee.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and ranking member Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) both expressed pleasant surprise that a quick and inexpensive interim solution could be available while Congress, the Administration and the Coast Guard debate and try to fund a ten-year, billion-dollar project to design and build or even find and lease an entirely new icebreaker.
"I'm happy to hear that," Rep. Young said. "If all it takes is $11 million, that's not even a spit drop."
Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp told the subcommittee that his agency recognizes the urgent need, even if he disagrees with some on the best way forward.
"Our challenge today is to ensure we're working to meet our new and emerging responsibilities in the Arctic region as capably as we've performed our long-established missions in existing areas of operation," Adm. Papp said.
Restoring the icebreakers "is an affordable, proven, prompt and practical alternative that should not be squandered," Whitcomb said.
Action is needed now, Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell told the committee. "Other Arctic and non-Arctic nations are seeing this," he said. "America is missing the boat."
ABOUT VIGOR INDUSTRIAL:
Vigor Industrial companies build, repair and modernize maritime and metal projects across the Pacific Northwest. Vigor's US Fab subsidiary builds ferries, barges and other vessels as well as land and alternative energy devices, and is developing plans to build the Coast Guard's proposed Offshore Patrol Cutter. The Vigor Shipyards subsidiary is one of three companies nationwide entrusted with the maintenance of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. The Vigor Marine subsidiary repairs and modernizes fishing, cargo, energy and other vessels. In all, Vigor companies employ up to 1,700 workers in six centers in Portland, Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, Bremerton and Port Angeles. The privately held firm, which acquired the Todd Pacific Shipyards in 2011, operates under a core value that industrial jobs matter.