The Coast Guard today told Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker POLAR SEA, the nation's only functioning heavy icebreaker, will be unavailable for service until at least January 2011 due to engine problems.
As a result, the Coast Guard has had to cancel a scheduled fall 2010 Arctic patrol and likely will have to cancel other missions through January 2011.
"On a national level, this eliminates the nation's only heavy icebreaking capability and seriously imperils our ability to respond to emergencies in ice-covered and ice-diminished waters," Murkowski said. "This could clearly impact our ability to preserve and protect U.S. interests in the Arctic."
The Coast Guard said a recent inspection of the POLAR SEA's main diesel engines revealed premature excessive wear in 33 cylinder assemblies. The Coast Guard said an analysis into the cause of the excessive wear is underway and will be completed by mid-August. Depending on those results, the Coast Guard said additional repairs may be required, which could further extend the repair period beyond next January.
"The loss of the POLAR SEA is all the more reason for Congress and the Administration to refocus on the deteriorated state of the nation's icebreaker fleet," Murkowski said. "Ice-breaking capability is critical to our national security and America's energy security."
Murkowski has introduced legislation to fund construction of two new Polar class icebreakers and improve mapping, navigation and maritime infrastructure in the Arctic.
There are only two Polar class icebreakers - the POLAR SEA and POLAR STAR - along with the icebreaker HEALY, which is primarily used to support scientific research. The POLAR STAR, however, is currently in a "caretaker status' and is undergoing extensive repairs and won't be available for operations until 2013.
The POLAR SEA was commissioned into service on Feb. 23, 1978, and has exceeded its intended 30-year life. In 2006, the Coast Guard completed a rehabilitation project that extended its service life to 2014.