Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Nome Advocates for Deep Water Port Expansion

By Margaret Bauman

Nome, Alaska, site of the legendary 19th century gold rush, is today's destination for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but local officials see their city port playing a significant new role in development of the Arctic as the next big rush.

"The Arctic is the next economic hot spot," says Nome Mayor Denise Michels. "This is going to happen. Our job is to be proactive rather than reactive. They have been coming. They will come... and with the ice cap shrinking, there will be more and more vessels in the Arctic. The message that Nome wants to get out is that Nome needs the infrastructure in place now," Michels said.

The challenges for the bustling port are two-fold: First, Nome is a seasonal port, with first dockings about early June, the inner harbor closed by the end of October and the outer harbor by the end of November. Second, it will take millions of dollars to complete the project and a request likely won't go to Congress until early in 2015.

Right now the deep draft vessels anchor off of Nome and lighter their passengers into the small boat harbor, said Josie Bahnke, city manager. Cruise ships also come into the causeway at Nome. With an expanded causeway, the port would also be able to accommodate the Coast Guard, Bahnke said.

So Michels, Bahnke and retired Nome harbormaster Joy Baker, now projects manager for the Port of Nome, are working with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Anchorage and the state of Alaska to develop their deep water port expansion project. They are seeking $250 million for design and construction of the extension of the existing causeway to establish the deep draft area.

It's another step in improving and expanding facilities at this century-plus old seasonal port, a priority for Nome's local government since the early 1980s.

"We are a regional hub now," said Baker. "All the fuel comes through here. We are a transshipping port, and support for oil and gas development in the Arctic."

"It's a national security issue, an international access that is needed," Michels said. "It is a global issue. It is infrastructure needed to meet national security and national interests with development of the Arctic."

In 2012, the port was awarded $10 million from the state toward the project, a portion of which is dedicated for study and data collection to come up with a design concept, Baker said. "We are gathering information to determine what design is best," she said. A portion of that general obligation bond money from the state was used to build a high ramp dock at the small boat harbor and some funds were set aside to build a third sheet pile dock, which may go out to bid this spring and into construction in the summer of 2014, Baker said.

The US Army Corps of Engineers in mid-November produced its Alaska Deep-Draft Arctic Ports Navigation Feasibility Study, which notes that "increased vessel traffic coupled with limited marine infrastructure along Alaska's Western and Northern shores poses risks for accidents and incidents, increased response time for search and rescue, and requires international coordination."

The study calls for accommodating line haul fuel barges, icebreakers, cargo barges, tankers, Coast Guard cutters, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels, landing craft and tugs.

It would extend the existing causeway 2,150 feet, demolish the existing spur breakwater, construct a 600-foot concrete caisson dock and extend utilities to the caisson dock. It would also involve dredging the outer channel and maneuvering area to minus 5 feet, dredging between the existing causeway and main breakwater to minus 22 feet, and disposal in the existing offshore disposal area.

Facilities at nearby Point Spencer would accommodate line-haul barges, tug assist, icebreakers, oil and gas support vessels and a heavy lift barge. Construction there would increase a 1,000-foot caisson dock, a 4,800 foot causeway and breakwater and dredging the turning basin and entrance channel to minus 35 feet, and upland facilities including fuel tanks and a 13-acre laydown area. There would be no connecting road to Nome.

Cape Riley, with a 5.5-mile road connecting to the Nome/Teller Highway, would accommodate shallow draft mineral extraction and lightering vessels. There would be a 250-foot by 40-foot concrete caisson dock, a 200-foot by 360-foot staging area, a 550-foot turning basin with minus 12.5-foot depth and a 305-foot entrance channel with minus 12.5-foot depth.

Plans are for a public review in March, then an agency decision in June, a civil works review board in August and a chief's report in December 2014. Once signed, that final report will be sent on to Congress for authorization and funding, said Lorraine Cordova, project technical lead.

"It looks like we have a viable project," Cordova said. "It meets the test for benefit cost ratio... that benefits will exceed the cost. It is my hope that when the feasibility study is complete that it will be budgetable."

Right now the study is a cost-shared study with the state of Alaska. "We cost share the study 50-50 and if it goes to construction, likely 65 percent will be coming from the corps and 35 percent from the state," she said.

Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, are pursuing public-private partnerships, and "we haven't ruled any of that out," she said.

The corps report said that as of 2012 the projected increase in northern sea route traffic was 30-fold over a period of eight years, and that the increase in such traffic from 2012 to 2013 preliminary results showed a 13-fold increase in one year.

A data spread sheet compiled by the corps also compiled the tons of gravel and cargo that have come through the Port of Nome from 1988 through 2012, as well as gallons of fuel sold, plus revenues from this activity.

In 1988, for example, 26,798,810 tons of cargo moved through the port, generating revenues of $267,988. In 2012, the cargo volume was 56,575,830 tons, generating $411,879 in revenues.

"We are attempting to meet the needs that are already there," Cordova said. "Nome is overrun. Nome is severely crowded between cargo vessels, dredges, fishing boats and fuel. This isn't a matter of attracting new business. It's just trying to take care of business that is already there."

Assuming funds are appropriated by Congress, there would likely be a three year construction season, she said.

The corps held a public planning session last spring, engaging residents of Nome, Teller and Brevig Mission with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, to address concerns involving expansion to a deep draft port. "Part of our job is doing the National Environmental Policy Act work and an environmental impact statement," she said. "The ones we have talked to support the project. The traffic is there and people want to make sure their way of life is protected. It's a fine line that we all walk."