LET US KNOW—The USCG plans to launch heavy polar class icebreakers into the Arctic within the next five years. Christine Wiegand, environmental project manager on a draft Environmental Impact Study, visited Nome with a Coast Guard group from Washington D.C. to provide information and collect input on impacts to environmental resources.

Navy and USCG planning new icebreakers for Arctic

The United States Navy has teamed up with the United States Coast Guard to build a fleet of new icebreaker vessels. Three heavy polar icebreakers—HPIB for short—aim to advance national interests and national security in the Arctic as well as keep pace with growing commercial activities in polar regions. The Navy and the Coast Guard will work side by side on the project and the icebreakers will join the USCG fleet.

A USCG team from Washington D.C. visited Nome, followed by hops to Kotzebue, Utqiagvik and Anchorage, to provide information and collect input from this region of the Arctic to help set the scope for a draft Environmental Impact Study this summer. The EIS stems from a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act.

In March, an integrated program office issued a request for proposal using an open and full competition strategy for detail design and construction, with a single contract to be awarded next year, with construction beginning in 2020.

The Coast Guard wants six new icebreakers in all—three heavy ice breakers and three medium ice breakers—to support maritime, national security, economic and commercial needs.

The projected cost of the first HPIB of the new fleet is about $900 million with the following two expected to cost around $600 million range each. The contract award will follow Dept. of Homeland Security procurement guidelines, according to a statement from the Navy.

The HPIBs will be built by a ship builder in the United States, according to Commander Kenneth Boda, chief of navigation and ice breaking vessels at the USCG headquarters.

The country’s ice breaking fleet currently includes the heavy icebreaker Polar Star, a 399-feet long vessel, commissioned in 1976, and the 420-feet medium icebreaker cutter Healy, commissioned in 2000. A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, has retired.

The current USCG icebreaker fleet is getting ready to retire. The Polar Star underwent a three-year reactivation and returned to service in 2013. Since then, the Polar Star has completed five deployments to resupply McMurdo Station on Antarctica. The Coast Guard expects the Polar Star to stay on the job until about 2020 to 2023.

The target for the delivery of the first HPIB is 2023, followed by testing and commission soon afterward.

Boda, who works in the Office of Cutter Forces, is an icebreaker sailor who has been to Nome six times. He oversees all operational requirements for the icebreaker program. He is chief of icebreaking and vessels that aid navigation. “We see in the Coast Guard recapitalizing ice breakers as two top priorities. One is to replace medium endurance patrol cutters with what we call offshore patrol cutters. The other is to get some heavy icebreakers to replace our aging polar class,” Boda said.

The USCG needs multiple icebreakers to be able to adhere to patrol maintenance and transit schedules while still maintaining the Coast Guard mission in the Arctic and Antarctica action areas.

Boda is the sponsor’s representative for icebreaker acquisition. “I represent all the users of the vessels. We need the HPIB to meet three key parameters.  We’re looking to buy three heavy icebreakers. We need to know that if there is a problem in the Arctic that we can get up there any time of the year. A heavy icebreaker for us is a vessel that can break six feet of ice at three knots and penetrate rigid ice at 21 feet. That makes it a heavy ice breaker,” Boda said. “It can operate 80 to 90 days without refueling.” And a medium icebreaker? A medium icebreaker could break four feet of ice at three knots, according to Boda, and could have an endurance of being out for about 40 days without refueling. The Healy, familiar to Nome folks, is a medium icebreaker. The focus currently is on heavy icebreakers.

The icebreakers have to be inter-operable with all partners, federal state and local—even Port of Nome and the Nome harbormaster. The draft would be about 36 feet, Boda said. The Port of Nome is under study currently for feasibility of upgrades that would take the causeway into 40-feet deep-draft status.

The Polar Star was built in the 1970s and is costing more and more to continue operating. Additionally, a new modern icebreaker will meet the Polar Code and have a lighter environmental footprint and create a lighter impact, according to Boda.

A crew on an HPIB would number 130 personnel, with detachments brought on board to operate helicopters, do diving and other jobs.

“It’s a technological challenge to build one of these things. It’s a workhorse type of vessel. It has to support all the missions the Coast Guard has in the Arctic today. A heavy icebreaker can get anywhere year around,” Boda said.
“I need to remind Washington D. C. that we are an Arctic nation that we have an arctic coast line, that we have 250 miles of Exclusive Economic Zone, further, extended continental shelf rights, that there is a lot of interest in the Arctic,” Boda said.
“We are doing a draft Environmental Impact Study to see what icebreakers will come in contact with. The job of the Coast Guard is to protect. We have to make sure we protect the resources. We have to make sure we protect the people and living marine resources. We do search and rescue.”
The missions of the HPIBs in the region include the following:
Ice operations, Defense readiness, Aids to navigation, Living marine resources, Marine safety, Research support, Marine environmental protection, law enforcement, Oil spill response, Search and rescue, Ports, waterways and coastal security.
The USCG polar icebreaker draft EIS will evaluate potential impacts of icebreaker operation on the following environmental resources: marine vegetation, invertebrates, fish and essential fish habitat, seabirds and shorebirds, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Christine Wiegand is from the Navy’s polar icebreaker office. She is environmental project manager for the program. Wiegand urges interested people to send comments on environmental and socio-economic concerns. “In a perfect world, people would make sure the list of marine resources that might be affected included the fish they were interested in,” Wiegand said. “I want to know what they want to add to the study.”

“I am required by law to make sure we are not disrupting subsistence and their livelihood,” she said. “The Coast Guard needs to know what to do to ensure that the proposed polar icebreakers would not interfere with tribal community activities.”

Erin Oliveira is an environmental specialist on the Draft EIS sector of the project, a biological science person who is working to determine the level of stressors the icebreaker operations will affect certain resources—sea ice, marine mammals, socioeconomic resources. “We have to look at the whole life of the vessel and the basic operations it would go through, what effects it would put on population and animals,” Oliveira said. “We have to consider a reasonable level of ‘what ifs?’”
For more information go to https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-08795. The comment period ends on June 25.

 

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