Yukon community Emmonak plans for long overdue port

The longest river in Alaska and the third-longest river in North America does not have a landing.

Emmonak, the community of about 800 at the mouth of the Yukon, has plans to change that. The city has proposed a $16 million, 650-foot port that would be a transportation hub in Western Alaska, Emmonak City Manager Martin Moore Sr. said.

Not having a port at the mouth of the Yukon River has been a burden for communities all along the river and he said the infrastructure is long overdue.

“This dock is not for Emmonak, but for the whole region and it’s an important factor in bringing the cost of energy and the cost of transportation down,” Moore said. “We pay exorbitant fuel prices to do our commercial fishing and to do our subsistence way of life.”

Gasoline and heating oil currently sell for about $6 per gallon in Emmonak, he said. The city and local commercial salmon fisherman pool their fuel purchases so they can buy it in the largest quantities possible and save money, Moore said. In other river communities fuel costs can be much higher.

Everything brought to the town now is offloaded from barges directly onshore. Martin said it’s a practice that can be a challenge in times of high and low water, especially as the volume of cargo continues to increase.

According to city data, the number of shipping containers moved through Emmonak has grown steadily from 450 in 2002 to 1,700 in 2011. Over the same time the gross tonnage of total cargo moved in and out of the community has increased from 15,100 tons to 41,800 tons.

In 2009, Emmonak received a $516,000 state grant to fund the port’s design. By April 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had approved a 14-sheet pile proposal with a barge-landing ramp.

“To me, (the 2009 grant) was an important commitment from the state — saying that they at least agree to find out what the port is going to cost,” Moore said.

In 2012, Alaska voters approved an additional $3 million for the Emmonak project when it passed the $453.5 million general obligation bond referendum in the 2012 election.

Calista Corp., the Yukon-Kuskokwim Alaska Native regional corporation, is a major backer of the port and dock facility as an economic development driver, Calista President and CEO Andrew Guy said in a formal statement.

“Emmonak is key as it is one of the region’s largest communities and serves as the regional hub for aviation and marine transport,” Guy said. “It has one of the area’s largest fish processing plants providing an economy to about 20 area villages. This ocean to river project has a great promise as a receiving and distribution center for liquefied natural gas as Alaska gears up for production, pipelines and export.”

Moore is in the midst of drafting proposals to the federal Congressional delegation, the state Legislature and Gov. Sean Parnell for the remaining $13 million the project needs. The city will not start on the project until it has the full $16 million because the changing river could destroy a partially constructed worksite, he said. Once it is fully funded, Moore estimated the port should only take a year to construct. Emmonak’s permit with the Corps of Engineers is valid through the 2016 construction season.

“The federal government does not like earmarks, but we are hoping (Sens.) Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski and (Rep.) Don Young will consider putting money towards the Corps of Engineers,” Moore said. “We’ve worked with the Corps of Engineers before and they would put the money towards work in the region.”

That approach to federal funding for the project would be done through the Water Resources Development Act, commonly known as WRDA, through which money can be appropriated to the Corps with suggestions on how it is spent.

In a recent meeting with Journal staff, Young said funding projects through the WRDA bill will be a challenge, but is still the best option going forward.

Moore said being able to ship salmon by barge instead of airplane would drastically reduce costs for commercial fisherman all along the Yukon River, including Kwik’Pak Fisheries, the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association subsidiary in Emmonak. The high cost of flying fish out has been compounded by 15-plus years of low Yukon king salmon returns, Moore said.

Getting the port done quickly would help expedite the $30 million in sewer and water repairs the city is still undergoing from flood damage in 2009. Moore said the port would make moving equipment in and out of Emmonak easier and safer for contractors working on the infrastructure rehab.

Emmonak received the majority of the $30 million of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair the flood damage.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

08/29/2013 - 9:42am