Anchorage — A federal agency says a new, still-unreleased study examining the troubled Port of Anchorage expansion project suggests that it shouldn't go forward as designed because of the risk of shifting forces during an earthquake.
The study remains in draft form and won't be issued by the municipality until December. But the U.S. Maritime Administration, which sought the study by engineering firm CH2M Hill, on Monday provided a brief summary.
Instead of constructing a traditional dock on piling, interlocking sheets of steel have been hammered into the sea floor to form U-shaped cells that are then backfilled with dirt and gravel. The project has been stalled since 2010 when inspections found that numerous steel sheets were damaged during installation. The design by PND Engineers Inc. is patented as Open Cell Sheet Pile.
"While the study is still being finalized, preliminary findings support our concerns that selection of an Open Cell Sheet Pile design was inappropriate for the conditions at the Port of Anchorage," the Maritime Administration, known as MARAD, said in a prepared statement. "Specifically, three of the four port expansion project berths would not meet industry design standards during earthquake-related dynamic pressures."
PND founder Dennis Nottingham said Monday that he stands by his trademarked design, which has been used in numerous projects in Alaska and around the world.
"It's held up in thousands of earthquakes," Nottingham said. Port MacKenzie, across Cook Inlet from the Anchorage port, used the same sheet pile design, he noted.
An important element is that only the north end of the project was designed to withstand a major earthquake, he said. That's because the soils there are denser. He is now retired and had not seen or been briefed on the study. He was reached while deer hunting in Montana, where he lives part-time.
Still, the early findings raise questions about what is next for the port, a critical facility for the state because most goods consumed in Alaska pass through it.
Will the city have to start the rebuild anew? Will steel sheets already in place need to be pulled out? Mayor Dan Sullivan's office said the draft study ran to 2,200 pages. More analysis is needed to determine how to proceed, according to MARAD.
Already $305 million in public money has been spent on the port expansion, but not all that went toward the dock. New roads, an expanded rail line, a new port security system and a fuel pipeline were built with project money as well, according to federal officials. That work will still be usable.
The new structure, which was about one-third built when work halted, has been controversial among Anchorage engineers from the start. The city's Geotechnical Advisory Commission has pushed for years for an independent review of the design. The port's former engineer lost his job in 2002 in a dispute over the size of the new megaport with a dock face 1.5 miles long.
The Geotechnical Advisory Commission, made up of engineers, and the Anchorage Assembly are scheduled to be briefed on the study's findings Nov. 9.
Assembly members Jennifer Johnston, who chairs a committee overseeing the port, and Patrick Flynn, whose downtown district includes the port, on Monday reacted similarly when a reporter told them how the federal agency characterized the study.
"If that is in fact the case, that means there's a lot of rethinking to do about the project," Flynn said. "The whole thing is messy."
In a separate interview, Johnston said: "And being a mess, as with all messes, everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else, so it makes it even more of a mess."
The mayor is asking the Assembly to approve a $2 million contract with an Outside law firm for possible litigation on the project.
Flynn said that figure, which is on top of an existing $500,000 contract with Seyfarth Shaw for work on the port problems, may be too high. He said he'll likely support a smaller legal services contract.
Also on Monday, MARAD said it had settled claims over construction contract disputes related to the port work for $11.3 million.
The agency said that was far less than the $23.1 million being sought by contractors.
"This settlement saves the Port millions of dollars," MARAD said. The money goes to Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., which was the lead contractor on the project and subcontracted with other companies for the construction.
The resolution of contract claims, however, doesn't address the city's interest in recovering damages over deficient work, according to the mayor's memorandum to the Assembly asking for the $2 million.
Sullivan and other administration officials earlier this month received their own briefing on the study. Sullivan has declined to discuss it because he signed a confidentiality agreement with MARAD.
The public briefing for the Assembly comes three days after the general election, when Alaska voters will be faced with a $453 million statewide transportation bond proposition that includes $50 million for the port, the single biggest item.
Johnston said the port project must be completed, and the money is needed, regardless of what type of design is used.
A companion study scheduled to be completed next year will identify the best way forward.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.