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Great Lakes heavy icebreaker not expected for 10 years, says U.S. Coast Guard

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The heavy ice cutter Mackinaw is currently not in service and receiving maintenance. Mackinaw broke down in the Straits of Mackinac on Jan. 10, 2023.

The U.S. Coast Guard says it will take at least ten years for a new heavy icebreaker to make it onto the Great Lakes. Shipping industry leaders are outraged by the timeline and say the region will lose more jobs because of it.

"Ten years is ridiculous," said Eric Peace, Vice President of the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents the interests of commercial shipping. "I mean, we put a man on the moon in eight years."

According to the Lake Carriers’ Association, the lack of adequate ice breaking on the Great Lakes has resulted in the loss of 10,000 jobs and $2 billion of economic activity over the last decade.

During the first week of last year's Great Lakes shipping season, as many as 16 vessels were forced to stop on the ice due to strong winds on Whitefish Bay. Both the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards deployed cutters to get ships on a path to safety.

"The acquisition process is designed to assess the specific mission gaps and proper material and non-material solutions to meet those gaps and is statutorily required in accordance with 14 U.S. Code §1131, 1132," said Brian Olexy, communications manager for the Coast Guard's Acquisition Directorate in an email to WCMU. "Based on these statutory requirements and the complexity of building an icebreaker, the Coast Guard anticipates that it would take approximately 10 years from the time funds are appropriated to deliver a new heavy Great Lakes Icebreaker."

The National Defense Authorization Act, which passed at the end of 2022, included a $350 million authorization for a new heavy icebreaker on the Great Lakes to as capable as the current heavy cutter Mackinaw. It also calls for a 140-foot ice breaking tug boat valued at $20 million.

Peace, a former Coast Guard Officer, including 10 years on the Great Lakes, said the Coast Guard’s plan for a new heavy cutter doesn’t need to start from square one. He argues a plan for the new icebreaker could be based on the design of the Mackinaw.

"We're talking brute force and horsepower. It's nothing new," said Peace on a phone call with WCMU. "We've been breaking ice for, you know, centuries. And now we're looking at 10 years so that they can design a new one?"

The next phase for the new icebreaker is the Congressional appropriations process.

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.
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