Corps has $210 million plan for Nome port expansion

Photo/Courtesy/US Army Corps of Engineers

An expansion plan for the Port of Nome is starting to take shape.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District released a draft feasibility report Feb. 20 that outlines what it sees as a reasonable Arctic deep-draft port.

For an estimated $210 million, the Corps’ tentatively selected plan would dredge Nome’s outer harbor to a mean depth of 28 feet. It also calls for demolishing a small breakwater at the end of the existing causeway and extending the causeway 2,150 feet.

A 450-foot large vessel dock would then be constructed at the end of the causeway in the newly protected area. The large eastern breakwater would remain in place and the extended causeway would wrap around the end of it to expand the harbor.

The harbor currently has a maximum depth of about 22 feet.

“It’s a good day for everybody — for the city, for the state,” Nome Mayor Denise Michels said when the report was released.

The general proposal is similar to one the city drafted in the 1980s, she said, and much of what went into the current iteration came from Nome Port staff.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski commended the Corps for their work on the project in a release from her office and said a larger Arctic port could mean job growth for the Seward Peninsula.

“Though this is just one step, it is what I am looking for out of this administration to leverage our role and responsibility as an Arctic nation, and invest accordingly,” Murkowski said. “We know other countries are making plans to seize the opportunities presented in the Arctic, and we must do the same.”

While Nome is not north of the Arctic Circle, a Western Alaska port would likely be a hub for research, oil and gas support and emergency response vessels working in the Arctic.

The cost of the project would be shared, with the federal government picking up $97 million of the work that could have national economic development benefits. Local or state interests would fund the remaining $113 million. Michels said the city would probably look to private partners to help fund construction.

The latest report further narrows the focus of a study the Corps and state Transportation Department released almost exactly two years ago that chose Nome and nearby Port Clarence as the two best port locations of 14 sites Western Alaska sites reviewed.

Corps of Engineers Alaska Chief of the Civil Works Division Bruce Sexauer said in an interview that Nome was selected because Port Clarence, despite having naturally deep water, has no shore-side infrastructure. He said ships already seek shelter from storms in Port Clarence and lay up there to wait for ice to change, for instance; it serves its purpose.

Michels said the City of Nome would request the Corps further investigate dredging the harbor to 35 feet for larger vessels in the comments it will submit on the draft plan.

A 30-day public comment period is open through March 23 and Sexauer said the Corps is interested in getting as much feedback on the proposal as possible.

He said the Corps determined 28 feet to be sufficient for the vast majority of the industry support and response vessels are expected to call on Nome in the future. Additionally, it would be deep enough to get larger fuel and supply shipments into the Nome that could help curb shipping costs on goods in the city.

“There’s a certain break point — if you go down to a certain depth you’ll be able to accommodate a certain number of vessels, and if you go to the next depth you’ll be able to accommodate more vessels,” Sexauer said. “At some point if you go deeper there are not going to be very many more vessels that are going to need to be accommodated.”

Sexauer also noted that the inner harbor would also be deepened to 22 feet.

Dredging deeper also changes who pays for it. The feds typically pay 90 percent of the cost for deepening navigation features up to 20 feet. That match shifts to a 75 percent federal, 25 percent non-federal for 20 to 45 feet. Under the current plan for Nome, the non-federal sponsor would pay $1.5 million of the estimated $8.3 million dredging cost, according to the report.

Because it is an expansion plan of existing infrastructure, Sexauer said the environmental assessment work already done should satisfy National Environmental Policy Act requirements and a full-fledged environmental impact statement likely won’t be needed.

From here, the plan needs approval from Corps of Engineers leadership and funding authorization from Congress — how long that could take is unknown.

Michels said increased ship traffic through the Bering Strait in recent years has upped the need for more maritime infrastructure.

“The need is now, so the sooner the better we can do this the more the global shipping community can benefit from it,” she said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 5:52pm