Two environmental groups and a public interest organization want to halt the massive Port of Anchorage expansion, at least for now.
They are trying to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke a key permit it issued last August that allows the $700 million project to move forward.
The groups -- Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment and Alaska Public Interest Research Group -- say the corps used bad information to reach its decision. They are being represented by the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.
Some city leaders responded this week that they are backing the project as it stands and that the critics are rehashing old concerns already considered.
The project at the city-owned port involves building a 1.5-mile-long wall of steel in Knik Arm and then backfilling it with gravel and sand to provide a base for port operations. It will more than double the size of the existing port and will fill in 135 acres of Knik Arm, more than three times the size of Dimond Center mall and its parking lots.
Estimated costs have skyrocketed from $146 million in 2002 to the current $700 million. About 75 percent of Alaska goods come through the port, according to port director and former Gov. Bill Sheffield, and the expansion is intended to handle growth for decades to come.
One reason the project is so big is to allow the port to remain operational during construction, Sheffield says.
Biologists have raised concerns about risks to salmon and belugas. Engineers have questioned the design's stability in an earthquake. And there's a growing chorus of questions about costs, and whether Anchorage taxpayers will be stuck with a big part of the bill.
PUSHING A SECOND LOOK
In a 45-page document sent to corps headquarters, the advocacy groups say the corps used faulty reasoning and inaccurate, unreliable or biased data when it issued the permit allowing a large stretch of Knik Arm to be filled in. They want the corps to take another look, as provided for in what's known as the federal Data Quality Act.
The groups say the project managers still need to justify the project's purpose, detail the costs and funding, and, with the corps, scrutinize alternatives that could be less costly and less damaging to the environment. They are not against expansion, but it needs to be done right, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper.
For instance on the earthquake issue, the Alaska corps district sought advice from the corps' Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss. But the research center was given to review only a preliminary design of a small stretch of new dock in shallow water -- an atypical section, according to the advocacy groups.
On costs, the corps agreed the port's preferred design of gravel-filled steel honeycomb is much cheaper than a traditional dock on pilings. But the challengers note that its source on costs is PND Engineers -- the firm designing the new dock -- and that another assessment found little difference in costs of the two designs.
MAYOR: NO MORE REVIEW
The groups sent their critique to the corps, Mayor Mark Begich, Gov. Sarah Palin, Anchorage Assembly members and area legislators.
They urged the mayor to "convene a truly objective panel of experts on municipal finance, Port operations and funding, and seismic stability before any additional resources are committed to this effort."
Begich doesn't plan to do that, said his spokeswoman, Julie Hasquet. He gave their document a cursory look but found nothing new, she said.
"In this case they are going to have to agree to disagree," she said. "He completely supports the port expansion and sees no reason to do an independent review."
Assembly Chairman Dan Coffey says the project appears well thought out and has his support "100 percent." It's being built in phases and if it turns out that port operations don't justify such a huge project, some new berths or other elements can be delayed for years, Coffey said.
"If it comes back and bites us in the butt, then ... it'll bite Bill Sheffield in the butt, it'll bite Mayor Begich in the butt, because these are the administrators who are bringing these things forward," Coffey said.
A proposal for the port to take on $75 million in short-term debt is scheduled for an April 15 public hearing before the Assembly. Ultimately, the city debt load might reach $215 million for the expansion. The city share would be refinanced through revenue bonds and taxpayers won't be tapped, according to Sheffield.
Still, Assembly member Chris Birch said he has concerns about the finances, and the dock design.
Officials with the Corps of Engineers in Alaska are reviewing the groups' challenge. Deputy port director Stephen Ribuffo said the port likely will wait for direction from the corps and the federal Maritime Administration, which is managing the project, before responding.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.