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Murkowski Questions Coast Guard About Assets in Alaska

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, raised concerns that the Obama Administration has failed to provide enough funding for the Coast Guard to fulfill its missions in Alaska, particularly as they relate to operating in the Arctic.

Murkowski raised the issue with Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad W. Allen, who was testifying before the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, on which Murkowski sits.

"Our heavy icebreakers are reaching the end of their service lives," Murkowski said. "Is the Coast Guard currently positioned to address the safety and security concerns the nation faces in the Arctic as we see increased maritime activity due to the melting sea ice?"

Allen said the U.S. needs three operational Polar class icebreakers in order to adequately ensure the safety and security of mariners in the Arctic region. But at the present time 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.

"We have some challenges after that including funding a crew for the POLAR STAR once it comes out of dry dock and that'll have to be dealt with in the coming years," Allen said. 

Allen said what is misunderstood about icebreakers is the fact that the Arctic will not be ice free, but rather will be ice-diminished.  "Even in the summer up there, there are very large pieces of ice that present a hazard to shipping and with wind from the proper direction that can come together and create ice flows that have actually trapped fishing vessels in the summer. We need icebreakers up there to provide us with command and control platforms to provide forward basing for any mission response we have to do up there," he said.

Allen said he's raised these concerns with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Allen said another problem was the lack of a deepwater port in the area. "Right now the lack of infrastructure off the North Slope to respond to anything, is really inhibiting our ability to be effective up there," he added.

Murkowski also touched on Coast Guard helicopter capability at Air Station Kodiak. "You've basically been piecing it together and I'm assuming if you had a better budget that you would look to put another helicopter there at Kodiak".

Allen said the Coast Guard's first priority is to replace the H-60 helicopter that recently crashed in Utah, but added: "If I had one more ... H-60 (helicopter), I could get my hands on, I would send it to the 17th District for the second stand-by helicopter for St. Paul."

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