Corps of Engineers advances Arctic port study

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to recommend a configuration of port facilities in western Alaska that could serve ships sailing to Arctic waters.

The Corps in early March will announce which configuration of docks, harbors and other infrastructure could best serve vessels in northern U.S. waters. The choice could be Nome, nearby Port Clarence, or a combination of the Seward Peninsula locations.

The Alaska office of the Corps, performing a feasibility study on behalf of the state of Alaska, has made its preferred choice from 19 iterations, said Lorraine Cordova, who heads the study.

“The part of the process we’re in right now is to get our U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters to agree to a tentatively selected plan,” she said.

Officials in Washington wanted a review of ship traffic into Nome before making a decision.

“There are cruise ships, for crying out loud, going into Nome, and all of them are attempting to use the same barge dock,” Cordova said. “So our traffic analysis is looking at those various user types, how long would they stay at the harbor in previous years, and what does that vessel traffic look like in the future.”

The lack of a deep-water harbor along Alaska’s north and west coasts has been a point of concern as climate warming has made Arctic waters more accessible and nations have taken an interest in the region’s resources.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC in 2012 began exploratory drilling on offshore leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, hoping to tap reserves estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey at 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. An increasing number of tour boats are transiting the Bering Strait and state officials anticipate merchant ships one day using the Arctic Ocean for shipping.

The nearest permanent Coast Guard facility is on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska east of the Aleutian Islands.

The three year deep-draft port study was launched last year, and the Seward Peninsula locations, though south of the Arctic Circle and the Bering Strait, ranked highest for a deep-water port. Conversations with the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard led the Corps to seek a harbor that could handle ice-hardened vessels in the 35-foot depth range.

Nome has an airport that handles jets but an inner boat harbor just 10 feet deep and an outer harbor at 22.5 feet. Among the 19 possible plans, the Corps is considering docks of 200, 600 and 1,000 feet and dredging to 35 feet.

About 70 miles to the northwest is Point Spencer, a former LORAN navigation station at the tip of a spit protecting the deep waters of Port Clarence, which has offered safe haven to mariners since commercial whaling days. A port at Point Spencer would require dredging to deep water, and depending on how it was used, possibly a longer airstrip, fuel loading and storage facilities, housing or a road.

A combination of facilities between Nome and Port Clarence sites is a strong possibility, Cordova said.

The Corps preliminary recommendation will be released the first week of March. After a public comment period, the study is due to be completed in December. It will be submitted to Congress, which could authorize funding for construction in a cost-share arrangement with the state, the city of Nome, another municipality or a private entity.

The federal government in past Alaska harbor projects has picked up 65 percent of the cost.

— Dan Joling 

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