U.S. icebreakers can't handle Alaska oil spills: official

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 11, 2011 1:16pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard does not have enough working icebreakers to respond to a major oil spill in Alaskan waters, the top official who oversaw the containment of the BP oil spill warned Congress on Friday.

"The current condition of the Coast Guard icebreaker fleet should be of great concern to the senior leaders of this nation," General Thad Allen testified at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing on last summer's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Allen said two of the three ice breakers do not work and decisions on future funding for the fleet continued to be delayed. "Nobody is talking about the icebreaker capability problem," he said.

Similar concerns about icebreakers were raised by the special presidential commission that looked into the BP oil spill and government offshore drilling regulations.

Allen said current infrastructure is inadequate to support extensive response and recovery operations off Alaska's North Slope, except for oil industry facilities at Dead Horse and Prudhoe Bay.

"Point Barrow, the only location close to the new Beaufort and Chukchi Sea lease areas, has limited access and no ability to support large-scale operations," he said.

Allen said the closest port with any capacity to handle rescue ships is Nome, but it is restricted to vessels with hulls that don't go more than 21 feet below the water line.

(Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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