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Demands for a new Great Lakes icebreaker go to Congress

The retired USCG Mackinaw icebreaker is docked in Mackinaw City.
Wikimedia Commons
The retired USCG Mackinaw icebreaker is docked in Mackinaw City.

Breaking the ice is never an easy undertaking, especially with a shrinking and outdated fleet of icebreakers.

That’s why approximately 90 Midwestern shipping organizations, suppliers and ports are supporting the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act, which would put aside funding for a second Great Lakes icebreaker, on par with the Mackinaw Icebreaker.

Eric Peace is with the Lake Carriers’ Association, which is at the forefront of the movement. He said a new icebreaker is critical to meet commerce needs and support the Michigan economy.

“This is infrastructure,” Peace said. “This is like a plow for the roads, so it's critical to maintain our national economic security here in the Great Lakes.”

In a report commissioned by the Lake Carriers’ Association, “inadequate icebreaking” resulted in a loss of approximately 5,000 jobs and a revenue loss of $1 billion in 2019. The report found this loss in the Great Lakes Region was due to ice-caused shipping delays.

Peace said facilities were built around the lakes to receive goods by ship, and many facilities don’t have alternative means to receive raw materials.

“Shipping is critical to be able to supply the facilities in Michigan, so people can keep their jobs, and we can continue to have a strong economy in the Great Lakes,” Peace said.

In addition to funding a new ice breaker, the act would also require the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct ice breaking operations in the Great Lakes to specific standards. One standard includes requiring the USCG to keep channels and harbors open to navigation at least 90% of the time when ships are transiting ice-covered waterways.

The bill has 16 cosponsors in the House and four in the Senate.

Peace said advocates have received promising congressional support so far, but it’s still difficult to predict whether the bill will pass.

Despite the support, the U.S. Coast Guard did not include funding for the icebreaker in its 2022 fiscal budget. Peace said the struggle for updated infrastructure has been a “40-year battle.”

For the Coast Guard, “it's a competing demand, because they’re trying to recapitalize their other fleets, so (a Great Lakes icebreaker) falls to the bottom of their list,” Peace said.

The Coast Guard prioritizes off-shore fleets more, he said, and wants to wait 12 years to fund a new icebreaker for the Great Lakes.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The government estimates a new icebreaker will cost $350 million. The funding bill is in committees in the U.S. House and Senate.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.