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Defense bill boosts construction of six Coast Guard icebreakers

The Coast Guard Cutter. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Daniel R. Michelson)

Six new Coast Guard icebreakers have been authorized in a provision of the massive defense bill that the Senate passed Friday.

Congressional backers of the measure say it reflects bipartisan support for a major effort to rebuild the U.S. icebreaker fleet, and that its passage would help secure future appropriations to get all six of them built. The bill passed 84-13.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in Senate remarks Tuesday, said the icebreaker fleet expansion affirms that “we truly are an Arctic nation.”

The U.S. fleet consists of two Seattle-based icebreakers, one of which was disabled in the summer by a fire, and another — the Polar Star — currently on a three-month cruise to the Arctic. Russia has a fleet of more than 50 icebreakers.

Construction of one of the six new Coast Guard icebreakers already is underway due to $1.2 billion in earlier funding. That vessel will be a heavy icebreaker capable of working in very severe ice conditions, and is scheduled to be delivered to the Coast Guard in 2024.

The Coast Guard has said that vessel, as well as the next two, would be based in Seattle.

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a Senate hearing Tuesday, pushed for the some of the other vessels to be based in his home state.

Testifying at that hearing, Coast Guard vice-commandant Admr. Charles Ray said that Alaska ports are being considered in an analysis expected to be completed in August.

The authorization of the six new vessels is tucked into broader Coast Guard legislation attached to the National Defense Authorization Act.

President Donald Trump has said he would veto the bill unless it does away with a provision of federal law that gives social media companies wide-ranging immunity for the content that appears on their websites. But the House on Tuesday passed the legislation by a more than two-thirds majority, and the Senate vote also exceeded that threshold.

Other provisions sought by Cantwell for the legislation include:

* The enactment of a new program to reduce the impact of vessel noise and traffic on Southern resident orcas, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

* A provision to improve Coast Guard efforts to recruit, retain and invest in women. It also creates new programs and resources to improve access to child care for Coast Guard families. Women have identified challenges with child care as a barrier to long-term success in the Coast Guard, according to Cantwell.

* A provision that extends “real-time noise monitoring” of Navy Growler jet activity over Whidbey Island and Olympic National Park. The Growler fleet based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has been expanding, and the noise made by low-flying aircraft has been spurred many complaints as well as legal challenges. The results of the monitoring must be made publicly available on a Defense Department website.

* A provision to improve the Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Advisory Committee by increasing the frequency of meeting. The committee provides recommendations to the Coast Guard to improve safety, and Cantwell has heard from safety advocates who say that there often has been no follow-up action.


(c) 2020 The Seattle Times

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