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US senators move to save old ice breaker from scrap yard

Problem: Ship already sold to Texas firm

Posted: April 16, 2012 - 11:03pm

The USS/USCG Glacier is far from her prime, but both of Alaska’s U.S. senators have moved to get the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) to save this piece of floating history from the scrapyard.

The ice breaker that helped found McMurdo Station on Antarctica and performed a record-breaking 39 Arctic and Antarctic deployments may become scrap despite more than a decade of repairs and studies aimed at making the ship a museum or medical and scientific ship.

A non-profit group has invested millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to fix up some of the ship's systems and test the Glacier’s hull soundness. The ship was once the most powerful U.S. icebreaker in the fleet and the flagship of polar explorer Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd.

Yesterday the running clock on a "Save the Glacier" website ticked down to 11 hours and change for the non-profit Glacier Society, as MARAD was poised to decide whether Glacier would join 58 other vessels marked for scrapping, the website said.

A complicating factor: The decision may already have been made. The ship was sold to ESCO Marine Inc., a Brownsville, Texas firm for scrapping on Feb. 16 by MARAD for $146,726, according to a copy of a contract sent to the Empire Tuesday by the Virginia office of a recycling firm.

"Of course MARAD will have to sign off, if you read the contract, they sell it for scrapping, no other use and will fine ESCO if they do something otherwise," Polly Parks of Southern Recycling - EMR wrote. "I’m surprised (Sen. Lisa) Murkowski and (Sen. Mark) Begich are willing to spend political capital on a Florida destination; for something where (money)has already passed hands."

The Glacier floated among the 58 vessels in MARAD’s Non-Ready Reserve fleet in California’s Suisun Bay until Tuesday, when it was towed to a drydock. Many other vessels, most rotting hulks, have been stripped of toxins and towed through the Panama Canal for scrapping in recent years.

A MARAD spoksperson said the ship is too far gone to save.

"For the past fourteen years, the Maritime Administration strongly supported the Glacier Society's goal of securing sufficient funding and a permanent berth to convert the former Glacier into a museum, even extending the deadline in the hopes that additional funding would arrive. Unfortunately, the Glacier's condition deteriorated during this time to the point that it could not be donated and the ship was sold under a recycling contract in February. As part of the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Park Service has surveyed and documented the vessel," according to MARAD spoeksperson Kim Riddle. 

She said the report will be deposited at the Library of Congress, th San Francisco Maritime Museum and the California State Historic Preservation Office and posted on the Maritime Administration website.

The staff at Murkowski’s Washington, D.C. office were “huddling up” Monday and getting to work on the issue, said Communications Director Matthew Felling.

Begich’s office fired off a letter to Maritime Administrator David Matsuda in the ship’s defense.

In his letter to Matsuda, Begich stated the Glacier Society has sunk $3 million into the project, structurally surveyed the heavy-hulled ship and made plans for rehabilitation at a Bay Area shipyard.

The "title is currently held by MARAD as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. MARAD is authorized as disposal agent for decommissioned military and merchant vessels," said Press Secretary Julie Hasquet.

Glacier’s final destination under current plans would be Florida, where it would serve as a museum.

The ship “has a storied history of service to our nation through its polar exploration and establishment of our base at McMurdo Sound. I request MARAD return the Glacier to donor status, save it from the scrap heap, and expedite its transfer to the Glacier Society,” Begich wrote.

Efforts to save the old ship have come close before to success, but perhaps never so close to failure. Earlier plans were for the Glacier to become a medical ship serving remote communities in the Arctic Circle, as well as a floating research platform. At one point the government was poised to sign the ship over to the Society.

Glacier Society Chairman Ben Koether began a public relations blitz last month at the culmination of a 14-year rollercoaster effort to break the ship out of mothballs. His message a month ago was one of desperation.

“We are at a critical time in the life of the storied Glacier, perhaps more difficult than any passage the storied ship has made in unforgiving environments,” said Koether, chairman of the Glacier Society and once a rookie Glacier navigator. The Society credits him as discoverer of “Koether Inlet” in the Bellingshausen Sea, Antarctica.

Last night Koether was busy sending off letters and venting some steam.

“MARAD just told me to drop dead,” Koether said of his recent negotiations. Koether said a shipyard offered to trade another vessel for the Glacier and deliver the Glacier to its new home port in Miami, but MARAD refused. Current plans call for the ice breaker to be towed from Suisun Bay through the Carquinez Strait as soon as tomorrow to a former Navy shipyard in nearby Vallejo, Calif. for cleanup. Within 30 days the ship could be towed under the Golden Gate Bridge and to a Gulf Coast scrapyard, he said.

Koether said Tuesday he has been in contact with the ship's new owner, and he strongly disputed MARAD's contention the vessel had deteriorated beyond criteria for donation status.

In a prepared release, the scientist in charge of the Glacier Society’s museum project said the “ship has a unique role in U.S. history and its future.”

The vessel was a cold warrior, serving in “Operation Deep Freeze” in competition with Russian ice breakers as America rushed to explore the polar regions. It was flagship for Byrd during that 1955-56 mission. The Glacier was in the U.S. Navy for years before donning Coast Guard orange in the 1960s, making its last trip to a pole in 1985. It was decommissioned by 1987.

The vessel has 10 Fairbanks/Morse Diesel engines, harnessing 21,000 horsepower among them. The vessel once had a maximum speed of 17 knots.

“No other ship afloat can speak so well to the environmental issues we face both locally and on a global scale, such as rising CO2 levels affecting the Polar regions,” said Charles Green, founder of the environmental museum initiative and lead adviser to The Glacier Society. “The Glacier will be the most important museum in the world for people that want to discover information on environmental, oceanographic, polar and earth-sciences.”

Koether said the ship’s historical significance and environmental importance must be recognized and celebrated through its use as an interactive museum.

“We have never failed in our efforts and we are confident we will be able to continue, with the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) support of the legislative right, extended to us by Congress to complete our transformation into a museum role. We look forward to honoring the Coast Guard that is crucial to our waters as well as becoming a world symbol of environmental progress,” Koether said in the release.

Last night, as the clock ticked, Koether vowed to keep working toward getting help from Congress or the Obama Administration to make that happen.

• Contact Managing Editor John R. Moses at 523-2265 or at john.moses@juneauempire.com.

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