The recent study about problems with the Port of Anchorage replacement raises serious concerns about Port MacKenzie, which was built with the same open cell sheet pile design the study says is vulnerable to earthquakes. In a recent ADN article ("Study: Port of Anchorage replacement flawed"), the leader of the geotechnical team for the federally-commissioned study warned "If it starts to move, then you've got potential problems. That's what happened in the 1964 earthquake. . ."
According to the State of Alaska, The Last Frontier has experienced three of the world's eight largest recorded quakes and one "great" earthquake (magnitude 8 or larger) every 13 years. The Denali Fault event that shook Fairbanks and ripped apart glaciers in 2002 measured 7.9.
I'm no doomsayer, and there's no one more confident than I am in the ability of Alaskans to cope with whatever mother nature sends our way. But in a place where the next big earthquake is a question of how soon, not if, sinking more public money into the flawed Port MacKenzie, including more than a hundred million dollars on a proposed rail connection, flies in the face of common sense.
Earthquake vulnerability is one among many problems facing the troubled port. The purpose and need for Port MacKenzie has been questioned since it was first proposed in 1989, when a Mat-Su Borough consultant declared it "a speculative investment whose long term development potential is uncertain."
That prediction has proven true as the port is barely used. In 2010 comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed rail extension, a Port of Anchorage official reported "Through informal observations we have counted only 8 ships in the last 7 years. . ." The minimal use is likely due in part to dangerous winter ice flows that make the port a risky place to dock. In a February 2005 article in the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Port Director Marc Van Dongen said "Port MacKenzie was planned to operate year-round, but everyone is aware of the ice. . ."
The borough's continued justification for the port and proposed rail spur are based on further speculation, including an assumption that several new mines will be built, among them the controversial Wishbone Hill Coal Mine. The eventual expansion of the Port of Anchorage, which will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, only makes the need for Port MacKenzie and the rail spur even more dubious, and spending more public money on it a shameful waste.
As a resident of Big Lake, located in the path of the proposed rail spur, I'm also acutely aware of impacts on our property values and the quality of life that makes my town such a great place to live. Construction of the rail extension will affect our recreation areas and require filling in wetlands important to salmon and other fish and game.
Cook Inlet and Mat-Su Valley salmon runs are already in trouble. The U.S. Department of Commerce declared a salmon disaster in Cook Inlet in September after state fisheries managers shut down commercial fisheries due to low king salmon returns. Mat-Su Valley sport fisheries have also experienced restrictions and closures over the past decade.
The recent transportation bond package included $30 million for the Port MacKenzie rail extension but surely our public officials can find more worthy projects to spend that money on. And the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce wants state legislators to put another $130 million for the rail spur into next year's budget.
Alaska has a long track record of ushering through expensive and unnecessary transportation projects with a lack of accountability and oversight, often resulting in local communities paying the price. The recent study indicating Port MacKenzie is vulnerable to earthquakes is a clarion call to cut our losses now and avoid making another costly mistake. State lawmakers should say no to any more money for the port and the proposed rail spur.
Grace Whedbee is a resident of Big Lake, real estate developer and commercial-industrial consultant with experience in disaster recovery analysis. She has extensively studied the safety and viability of Port MacKenzie since 2007.