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The Coast Guard is sending new vessels to Alaska

The Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick, a fast response cutter, and crew make way to their home port at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan in Ketchikan in March 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

WASHINGTON — Four new Coast Guard fast response cutters and two new patrol boats are headed to Alaska, members of the state's congressional delegation announced Wednesday.

The new cutters will be stationed in Kodiak, Seward and Sitka, with additional patrol boats sent to Petersburg and Juneau. Kodiak is getting two new cutters. Two have already been home ported in Ketchikan.

Wednesday's Coast Guard announcement came after Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan threatened to derail the nomination of Vice Adm. Karl Schultz to be commandant of the Coast Guard.

The new plan comes instead of an initiative announced in 2015: The Coast Guard planned to remove seven major cutters — Island Class, 110-foot ships — and replace them with six 154-foot fast response cutters, clustered in just two communities. Now the vessels will remain spread across six communities.

"We have an enormously big area to cover," Sullivan said. And clustering the vessels would also mean less infrastructure, and ultimately fewer employees.

"They had sent us a letter committing to this two days ago," Sullivan said. "It wasn't good enough. We sent it back." He said the earlier letter was "vague" and didn't provide the number or locations of new vessels. He offered a deadline of 9 a.m. Wednesday for a new response, or he would pull Schultz's nomination from the day's agenda — and he heard back at 8:45 a.m., he said.

"Today we got a finalized, no-kidding letter from the commandant of the Coast Guard (saying) that we're going to have not six, not seven, but eight hulls for Alaska," Sullivan said Wednesday. And he said, "particularly for Southeast Alaska, this is a big deal."

The new boats will show up in 2023, and "no assets will be decommissioned prior to the arrival of new assets," according to Sullivan's office. The senator credited "consistent pressure" from the delegation for Alaska acquisitions — an effort that he said prevented a potential draw-down of support in those towns.

"I still have a hold on" his nomination, Sullivan said, noting that he still had other issues to work through with Coast Guard before accepting the new nominee.

Rep. Don Young said that he has "long advocated for these updates," working with leadership in the House of Representatives to make sure that the state's Coast Guard needs were prioritized and funded. "I am particularly pleased to see these vessels will be distributed across Southeast Alaska," Young said.

The fiscal year 2018 budget included $340 million for the Coast Guard to commission new fast response cutters. The new vessels are longer and can stay at sea for greater lengths of time than the current 110-foot Island Class patrol boats, Young said.

The delegation also grabbed $51.5 million in the budget to fund new housing and infrastructure projects related to the cutters, Young said.

"Our study uncovered the need for facilities including piers, maintenance buildings and community housing to support these cutters and their crews prior to homeport arrival," Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft said in a letter to Sullivan dated April 25.

"This plan requires significant infrastructure and local housing investments in the communities of Kodiak, Seward and Sitka," Zukunft wrote. He asked for support when the Coast Guard requests federal funding, "and for the support of city officials as we mutually prepare for the arrival of the patrol boats."

"This announcement gives many of our Southeast communities the long-term certainty they've been asking for and brings significant investments — in infrastructure and local housing — to our coastal communities," Sullivan said. "And frankly, we're not done pushing the Coast Guard during their recapitalization process. In fact, we're just beginning."

The community of Petersburg will still lose three personnel members by moving to a smaller vessel. Sullivan still counted it as a victory, saying the city's mayor was worried they were going to "lose everything." The new vessel will be 87 feet long, replacing a 110-foot cutter.

All three members of Alaska's congressional delegation signed on to a letter Nov. 17 that expressed concern about future limitations to the state's Coast Guard fleet.

"We are deeply concerned with the impact your decision may have on operational response time to national security threats, fisheries enforcement, and search and rescue missions," they wrote.

At the time, Alaska was set to get six cutters to replace seven "Island Class Patrol Boats." And, they wrote, "the tyranny of distance is the bane of any search and rescue case; a matter of hours can mean the difference between life and death."

"Where we place our assets in order for them to be responsive is crucial not only from a national security perspective, but for fisheries enforcement and search and rescue missions as well," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement Wednesday.

Murkowski is a member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, where she said she advocated for the funding to spread vessels among "as many communities as possible."

Correction: This story previously misstated the number of new cutters headed to Alaska. There will be four new cutters, not six. The new cutters will go to Kodiak, Seward and Sitka.  Two new cutters — Bailey Barco and John McCormick — are already in place in Ketchikan. 

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