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Alaska Rural Ports Update

Investing in improvements

The Port of Nome is attracting attention as a possible site for an Arctic deep-draft port. City leaders would like to enhance the port so it can host larger vessels, such as cargo ships that travel over the pole. The causeway would need to be extended into deeper water and the breakwater, seen at the right, would need to be extended to meet the needs of larger ships, a project that city officials estimate could cost $150 million.

The Port of Nome is attracting attention as a possible site for an Arctic deep-draft port. City leaders would like to enhance the port so it can host larger vessels, such as cargo ships that travel over the pole. The causeway would need to be extended into deeper water and the breakwater, seen at the right, would need to be extended to meet the needs of larger ships, a project that city officials estimate could cost $150 million.

Photo courtesy of J. Hildebrand

Alaska has more miles of coastline than all other U.S. states combined. So it’s no surprise state and federal agencies spend millions of dollars each year investing in, improving and creating services for the boat-going public.

The rural port projects slated for work this year range from the relatively small—$330,000 is planned for an Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities project to install anodes on pilings in Petersburg to extend the life of the metal dock there—to projects that could change the path of maritime travel in Alaska.

Deep Draft Arctic Port

The State of Alaska and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District are jointly conducting a $3 million study to determine where to locate one large-scale project: a deep draft port that will serve possible increases in Arctic sea travel and accommodate resource extraction.

“Deep draft” is a term used to describe ports that can accommodate large vessels, such as big cargo ships. Typically it describes ports with more than 30 feet of clearance, or draft, below the water.

In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held meetings around the state to discuss what navigational projects were needed at coastal communities throughout Alaska.

Stephen Boardman, chief of the civil project management branch at the Corps’ Alaska District, says the study changed in 2011 at the request of Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, who asked that the focus be narrowed to the need for an Arctic deep draft port. In examining the topic, Boardman says, a number of parameters needed to be agreed upon. What’s the Arctic? What is “deep”? And perhaps most important, who is going to use a deep draft port?

“That’s the area we’re stumbling on right now,” Boardman says. “It’s premature for people to commit to a port. The (U.S.) Coast Guard has says on more than one occasion that they do not need a port today. The (U.S.) Navy says we do not need a port today.”

Other groups—mining industry officials, other government agencies, oil companies—either says if one is needed they would build it themselves or, perhaps, use whatever port is available, Boardman says.

Large cargo shippers aren’t necessarily looking at using Arctic shipping routes yet, he says, adding that there’s no guarantee yet that the route will remain open, which makes it difficult to schedule shipments, a crucial factor for shippers.

For now, the state and Corps are collecting data about potential port locations and likely users. This year, Boardman says, participants will begin going from community to community to collect more information. Eleven communities were identified as possible hosts for the port, he says.

One challenge is whether the final location will have intermodal access. Can goods or materials made or mined in Alaska be shipped there by rail or truck?

Nome: A Top Contender

Nome is one of the top contenders. Mayor Denise Michels says the community already has a bustling harbor space and received $10 million from the Alaska Legislature this year to expand it, although that appropriation was awaiting the governor’s signature at press time.

A recent surge in gold-mining interest means miners using suction dredges, machines that mine for gold under water, have flocked to Nome. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources allowed 33 dredge permits last year, Michels says, and 51 permits were issued this year. A few years ago there were only three dredges operating, she says.

Dredge operators have filled up Nome’s harbor, Michels says. The city needs expansion and it needs it quickly. But Michels and the City Council are planning that expansion with an eye to the future. And the future is likely going to bring more Arctic shipping and offshore oil development, she says.

“Our location is key. We’re right before the choke point—the Bering Strait—where all the traffic is going through already,” Michels says.

City records show that in 1988, 30 vessels docked at Nome Harbor. Last year 304 vessels docked there. And, with the ice cap shrinking, the city has seen more vessels using the Northwest Passage and stopping in Nome, she says. A couple years ago, four vessels stopped there on their way over the pole. Last year, seven stopped.

To serve as a deep draft port, Michels says the city must extend the Nome Harbor causeway to deeper water.

“We also need a breakwater for the outer causeway when we do extend it, to get those vessels in out of the weather,” she says. The city has requested $150 million from the state for a fully protected deep draft port.

Other communities are vying to be Alaska’s next deep draft port but Michels says she believes Nome is the best spot for it.

“We provide the short-term solution because we’re already established,” Michels says. “We see this as economic development for our nation, providing, finally, a deep draft port for Alaska and the U.S. and providing the support that is needed up here.”

Unalaska & Dutch Harbor

Unalaska Marine Center may be an even shorter-term solution, Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt says. While Nome is preparing for interest it sees on the horizon, Marquardt is fielding calls on a daily basis from oil industry and shipping officials interested in using Dutch Harbor as a staging area in the next year or two for work farther north.

“We never really considered ourselves an Arctic port but we have been told now … ‘Yes, you are. The Bering Sea is part of the Arctic,’” Marquardt says.

Unalaska Marine Center, the city’s bustling port, routinely hosts enormous container ships, cargo vessels and large factory fishing trawlers. More than 3,000 vessels a year visit or pass by Unalaska each year, Marquardt says. The port is already at deep draft levels and Marquardt says the city is considering dredging deeper.

“We know that, with the advent of cargo being shipped over the pole, we are the only deep-water port with cargo facilities, cranes … in a huge area,” Marquardt says. “There is no question that we’re going to be a support service port for Arctic oil and drilling. We are deep draft, we are ice free year-round …”

Boardman, with the Corps, says although Unalaska wasn’t initially considered “Arctic” and was therefore left out of the initial study, that opinion is being revised.

“We’re going to have to consider it … because they will need a place to service vessels going north,” he says.

Dutch Harbor is already home to welders and shipwrights, food and fuel suppliers and is familiar with the needs of a busy maritime industry. But the oil and gas industry has different needs than the fishing industry, which Unalaska is most familiar with. City leaders plan to hire a consultant to help them prepare for the tide that appears to be coming.

“My goal is to gather as much information as possible before next fall so we have a better idea how this is going to affect our community,” Marquardt says. To do so, she has asked the city council to consider paying for her and a handful of other city representatives to visit oil-boom areas in Texas and Louisiana.

City leaders requested $28 million from the state to fill in a pile-supported dock and create an upland storage area but that project wasn’t funded this year.

While city leaders were looking for other ways to fund that project, they secured funding for another improvement that will be helpful whether Unalaska Marine Center is picked as Alaska’s Arctic port or not.

Providing Shelter in a Storm

A massive and rare collaboration between private industry, a federal agency and city government will culminate this year with the addition of an enormous mooring buoy in Dutch Harbor’s Broad Bay.

Mooring buoys provide a spot for ailing ships to anchor to while a storm passes or repairs are made. Unalaska frequently serves as a port of refuge and has done so a number of times, but sometimes, providing refuge has endangered other port users, such as recently with the Hoegh Triton.

The Triton is a 650-foot car carrier, a tall, looming ship that was recently in need of repair. A storm came up while it was docked, Marquardt says, and the mooring lines started popping off. The two tugs that regularly operate at the harbor were fighting a losing battle trying to keep the ship docked, she says. A third tugboat that happened to be available was called on, and with all three pushing for nearly a day, the ship stayed in place through the gale.

The lesson, Marquardt says, was that a mooring buoy away from the dock is a better—and safer—place for a limping vessel to await repair.

Unalaska received a $250,000 grant from the federal Denali Commission to design and engineer the buoy and buy some of the necessary supplies. Shell Oil officials agreed to donate three large anchors for the project. Unalaska bought 3,000 feet of chain—“each link is 110 pounds and is bigger around than your torso,” Marquardt says—which will be shipped up this year. Shell plans to deliver the anchors either in the spring or fall, she says, and the whole system will be hauled to Broad Bay for placement.

Marquardt estimated the city’s cost for the project would have been about $10 million without help from Shell, Harvey Gulf International Marine and other participants. Instead, she says, “We’re getting it done for just over $300,000.” According to Marquardt, the technical details for the project are mind boggling. “You could just put a fully-loaded battleship on it in a gale and walk away.”

Raising Hoonah’s Status

A project in Hoonah is raising the status of the city’s marine industrial center in a big way this summer.

A 220-ton Marine Travelift was recently installed at Hoonah’s marine industrial center. But a key portion of the port improvement project, a wash-down pad, will be installed this year, completing a three-phase port improvement project.

Hoonah harbormaster Arlen Skaflestad says the wash-down bay is key to wrapping up the port project. The Travelift was designed to allow local tour boats as well as other vessels to be lifted out of the water for cleaning and repairs. However, without the wash-down pad, users haven’t been flocking to use the lift. There have been a few users, he says—53 boats were lifted out of the water last year. The largest was a 200-ton wood packer called the Barren Islands.

The Port of Nome is attracting attention as a possible site for an Arctic deep-draft port. City leaders would like to enhance the port so it can host larger vessels, such as cargo ships that travel over the pole. The causeway would need to be extended into deeper water and the breakwater, seen at the right, would need to be extended to meet the needs of larger ships, a project that city officials estimate could cost $150 million.

Photo courtesy of J. Hildebrand

“We were the only lift in Southeast he could use to get lifted out of the water,” Skaflestad says.

The wash-down bay will have a heated concrete pad sloped away from the harbor so debris and contaminated water is drained into a catch basin. A bathroom and small office are also part of the project, as are security lighting and fencing around the area. Electrical pedestals for stored boats are also being added, Skaflestad says.

The $2 million project is being paid for with a $657,000 donation from the Denali Commission, $1.2 million from the State of Alaska, and $150,000 from the city budget.

Skaflestad says the Hoonah harbor is booming—all its larger stalls, for vessels over 40 feet long are full and few smaller stalls are available. The harbor has a near-even mix of recreational and commercial users, he says. With the new lift, Skaflestad says the city hopes its maritime repair industry—welders and shipwrights—will expand to meet the new need and boost the local economy.

The wash-down bay should be finished by September, Skaflestad says. A 6-week closure for construction is expected to begin in early July.

 

The old Davidson Landing Harbor, prior to recent improvements (right), and the new ramp connecting Davidson Harbor users to the south side of Thorne Bay (left).

Photos courtesy of the City of Thorne Bay

Getting Across Thorne Bay

The city of Thorne Bay, near Ketchikan, is split by the bay it’s named for. City administrator Wayne Benner says about half the residents live on the north side, where the city’s main economic sector is, and half live on the south side, which boasts larger lots—one to five acres—and a more rural setting.

But getting from one side to the other is not always easy. It’s about a 40-mile trip over sometimes shabby roads to drive around, Benner says. By boat, it takes about five minutes to reach the other side. But for many years, Davidson Harbor on the south side of the bay had little to offer in the way of moorage.

“Before 2009 there was just an old floating dock out there for people to use. It wasn’t much bigger than maybe 30 by 40 feet with a little place to park a boat,” Benner says.

The city has been working diligently to improve the harbor, both to take pressure off the city harbor on the north side and to improve access for south-side residents.

“It provides better access for emergency services to the south side. And from an economic standpoint, having better mooring would actually encourage people to stay there or build and develop,” Benner says.

The project is in its final phase of construction. When finished, Thorne Bay will have a boat launch ramp, approach and trailer parking at Davidson Landing, along with 700 feet of new walkways and mooring floats. It will increase the vessel capacity from 15 vessels up to 20 feet in length to room for 58 vessels up to 50 feet in length.

Benner says the waiting list for slips on the south side is so long that the new harbor is already nearly full. He expects a mix of users, from local commercial fishermen to touring boats and skiffs operated by commuters.

The Denali Commission is paying $455,000 for the expansion and Benner says the state kicked in another $250,000 last year, with another state grant on the horizon this year. That’s money well spent, considering improving the pioneer-grade gravel-and-pavement road that connects the two sides of Thorne Bay would cost more like $40 million, Benner says.

More Projects

Other rural port projects scheduled for construction this year include:

  • Ketchikan Bar Harbor drive-down ramp design—$287,500 from the Denali Commission
  • Rehabilitation at the Wrangell city dock—$8.5 million, including nearly $1 million from the Denali Commission
  • False Pass utility construction, including electrical service suitable for fishing vessel repairs and operation—nearly $1 million from the Denali Commission
  • Small boat harbor repairs in Kasaan —$1.4 million from the state of Alaska
  • Installation of anodes in Petersburg harbor to extend the harbor life—$330,000 in state funding
  • Breakwater construction in Akutan, part of a $31 million project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Aleutians East Borough to build a boat harbor there.
  • Installation of a floating breakwater in Juneau’s Douglas Harbor—$1.2 million in funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

 

From Nome to Hydaburg, communities will be working on projects this year to improve some of the more than 160 ports and harbors throughout rural Alaska. It may mean short disruptions in services for some port users, but in the long run, the communities will be offering more space or better services to patrons.

Rindi White is a writer living in Palmer.

This article first appeared in the June 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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