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Soviet Role In Whale Rescue Emboldens Coast Guard To Seek New Icebreaker With AM-Stranded

October 28, 1988

Soviet Role In Whale Rescue Emboldens Coast Guard To Seek New Icebreaker With AM-Stranded Whales, Bjt

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The use of Soviet icebreakers to help save two whales trapped off Point Barrow, Alaska, is emboldening the Coast Guard to again seek presidential approval to add one or more of the polar ships to its fleet.

In what has been a yearly ritual for a decade, the Coast Guard asks the White House for $300 million to build a new icebreaker and budget officials there always say no, most recently as late as two weeks ago, according to sources.

But that was all before two whales - dubbed Crossbeak and Bonnet by those taking part in a Herculean effort to save them - became trapped under Arctic ice a month ago and the United States called upon Soviet icebreakers for help.

″The whales trapped in the ice have raised the spectre of what’s wrong with the American icebreaking fleet, and the answer is everything,″ said Kurt Oxley, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee counsel for Coast Guard and navigation issues.

″With only two, we have to use them sparingly,″ Oxley said. ″With four or five we could spread them out more evenly and possibly have had one up there.″

The United States actually has three saltwater icebreakers now. Two are 399-foot sister ships - the Polar Star and the Polar Sea - both built in the 1970s and based in Seattle.

A third, the Northwind, is a World War II-vintage spoon-shaped hull stationed out of Wilmington, N.C., that is scheduled to be decommissioned in January and relegated to the scrap heap.

The Soviet Union, by contrast, has at least 16 icebreakers, including four powered by nuclear reactors.

″The Soviet Union is an Arctic nation; they need that many,″ says Adm. Paul A. Yost Jr., the Coast Guard’s commandant. ″We don’t need that many, we’re not an Arctic nation.″

″But we do need at least four polar icebreakers,″ Yost said. ″I think one will be all we can afford next year. Maybe we’ll get another one in the years beyond that.″

Not if the pencil pushers in the White House putting together the federal budget have their way. For every year dating back to and including Jimmy Carter’s presidency, they have rejected the Coast Guard’s yearly request for $300 million for a new polar ship.

Several sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the White House Office of Management and Budget turned down the latest request to include a new icebreaker in the president’s proposed budget for fiscal 1990 that begins next Oct. 1.

With two Soviet icebreakers coming to the rescue of the two whales this week, the Coast Guard has decided to make another stab at it, the sources said.

Yost would not confirm or deny that, but he said the world attention focused on the fate of the whales has ″definitely been a positive impetus toward us getting a new icebreaker.″

″Congress has directed that we build a new icebreaker, and now it’s just up to the Coast Guard and the administration to see if we can fit one into the 1990 budget,″ he said.

Congress in 1986 ordered the construction of two new icebreakers by 1990 after a study by the administration concluded that the Coast Guard should have a minimum of four - and better yet five - in its fleet.

But nothing has happened since then because of federal budget deficits exceeding $150 billion each of the past three years and bickering over whether the Coast Guard should build a new ship or lease it from private companies as part of the administration’s ″privatization″ goals.

Over the past two years, the Coast Guard has spent $2 million designing a new icebreaker. The agency estimates the cost of construction at $300 million for one and $500 million for two, if they are ordered at the same time.

Even then, a new icebreaker will take a minimum of seven years to build, Yost said.

Meanwhile, Crowley Maritime Co. of San Francisco, which now provides icebreaking services for oil companies operating on Alaska’s North Slope, has offered to build, lease and operate an icebreaker crewed by civilians but commanded by Coast Guard officers for $40 million a year.

″The Coast Guard was initially interested in our proposal two years ago and it fit in perfectly with the administration’s privatization goals,″ said Tim Mills, a Washington attorney retained by Crowley to push the venture. ″But then the Coast Guard changed its mind. We’ve quit working on it.″

The Polar Sea is now in Seattle in preparation for a resupply mission to the Antarctic in January.

The Polar Star is off Nova Scotia en route back to Seattle through the Panama Canal after it was unable to break through the ice-clogged Beaufort Sea west of Prudhoe Bay two weeks ago. It had to head east through the Northwest Passage following the rescue of two ice-stuck Canadian ships.

Yost said the United States probably would have called on the Soviet Union’s ship for help in any case, since it was only 300 miles away and had open water most of the way to where the whales were trapped.

″No icebreaker - not ours, the Russians’ or the Canadians’ - could have broken through from the West or East where the Polar Star was,″ he said. ″And our Seattle icebreaker was 3,500 miles away.″

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