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Murkowski seeks icebreaker funding

Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2009

While the shallow-draft icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healy arrives at Alaska ports on its way to the Arctic, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is working to convince Congress to provide funding for a new fleet of Coast Guard icebreakers for the Arctic.

Murkowski is a member of a U.S. Senate-House conference committee that will reconcile differences in the two chambers' appropriations bills to fund the Department of Homeland Security in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The Senate passed a $42.9 billion Homeland Security spending measure July 9 that includes $32.5 million to enhance United States' polar icebreaker capability. The Senate bill includes $8.9 billion for the Coast Guard in Alaska for fiscal year 2010.

The icebreaker funding, which was included at Murkowski's request, would go to finish the reactivation of the Polar Star, which is coming out of caretaker status. It also directs the Coast Guard to begin survey and design work, and conduct a business case analysis for either a new heavy polar icebreaker-class vessel or for a major service life extension for the existing heavy icebreakers.

The only heavy icebreaker currently working, the Polar Sea, has seven years remaining on its service life.

"While reactivation of our second heavy icebreaker helps, the U.S. must begin to plan for the long-term replacement or extension of our ice breaker fleet," Murkowski said. "These vessels are becoming increasingly important as access to the Arctic and its resources increases due to climate change and a reduction in summer sea ice. Activities such as energy development, tourism, marine transportation and shipping will increase, and the Coast Guard must have the resources to respond. This funding is a good start."

The Department of Homeland Security includes the Coast Guard, which has a large presence in Alaska, with more than 2,000 active personnel in over 20 communities. It operates 15 cutters and has two air stations.

The Coast Guard also plans to add a base on the North Slope and to increase its presence in U.S. Arctic waters.

The Coast Guard monitors more than 950,000 square miles of water off the Alaska coast. It enforces U.S. fisheries laws, patrolling a large area of the North Pacific to stop illegal, large scale, high seas drift netting.

Under the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard also secures the country's coast and ports and conducts at sea rescues.

The House version of the homeland security spending bill, passed last month, did not include polar icebreaker funding. Murkowski said she would work to retain the funding in the conference, according to a written release.

In an effort to bolster its presence in the Arctic, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy will begin a three-month patrol to Barrow.

The early August mission will focus on retrieving moorings deployed last summer by the Healy crew, as well as deploy new moorings. These moorings include hydrographic, oceanographic and meteorological equipment. Each mooring will remain for about a year to gather information relating to whale movements and oceanographic events.

A second mission is a joint effort with the Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St. Laurent. This joint mission is a continuation from last summer to map the floor of the Beaufort Sea.

Based in Seattle, Wash., the Healy has 80 permanent crewmembers and a primary mission of scientific support.

The Healy is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities by providing more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches and accommodations for up to 50 scientists.

The Healy is the United States' newest polar-capable icebreaker, commissioned as a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Aug. 21, 2000.

The Healy is designed to break ice that is more than 4 feet thick, continuously at a rate of 3 mph. It can operate in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees below zero.

Rob Stapleton can be reached at rob.stapleton@alaskajournal.com.



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