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Deepwater port in Nome or Port Clarence to support Arctic shipping?

Alex DeMarban
Gold miners have been at work dredging just outside the Nome harbor in recent years. Loren Holmes photo

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineering is drilling down on two sites in Northwest Alaska that could serve as the future location of an Arctic deepwater port to protect Alaska's northernmost coasts from the potential perils of international ship traffic and pioneering resource development.

Where to build such a port along Alaska's raw and rugged coast has been the subject of at least one congressional hearing, federal and state studies that include reams of local input. It remains to be seen how much cash the federal government will plow into the project, given the nation's ever-widening $16 trillion debt.

"There is a need to invest further in port development for the Alaskan Arctic" to protect more than 3,000 miles of coastline against threats posed by increasing ship traffic, 60 percent of which are foreign-flagged vessels, the U.S. Army Corps and state Department of Transportation said in a draft analysis released this week. Foreign vessels often fall under questionable regulatory scrutiny.

Key Bering Strait locations

The draft report released by the agencies said they had pared down a list of 14 potential Alaska sites to two, Port Clarence and Nome. Port Clarence, home to a tiny Coast Guard station, lies 70 miles northwest of the community of Nome, the famed finishing line for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and a magnet for generations of gold seekers.

 The two sites are located near the 50-mile-wide Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, a chokepoint for marine traffic traveling between the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea.

It's possible each location could support a deepwater port. Or perhaps just one is needed, said Lorraine Cordova, a project manager for the Corps.

"Our thought is the Arctic needs a system of ports, so we'll look at both sites simultaneously and try to determine what's the best approach," said Cordova.

But who knows what will come out of the next stage of the study, a review of Nome and Port Clarence that by December 2014 should produce a better idea of costs and construction needs. There's currently no money for construction, she added.

"To be clear, we have funds to do this study -- but no funds identified for construction at this time. The expectation may be that the state or federal government may build something, and that's not where we are now," she said.

A feather in the cap of both sites is their proximity to deepwater conditions. Both are within a mile of areas with depths of 45 feet, deep enough to support most ships. A site that needs little dredging could significantly cut the project's cost.

But the Corps and state looked at 19 other criteria, including proximity to potential development, such as leases for exploratory drilling held by Shell, ConocoPhillips and Statoil off Alaska's northwest coast. Another factor was nearby support services, such as the hospital and hotels in Nome, and runways near both sites.

While Nome is a city of 3,600 residents, the biggest in the region, Port Clarence, a military work site west of Teller on the Seward Peninsula, had 24 residents in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

Those involved in the study have suggested that a combination of public and private financing will be needed to pay for deepwater construction.

The Coast Guard is also working on its own study on the feasibility of establishing a deepwater port in the Arctic to help protect the nation's strategic interests in the region, said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Shipping volume will grow

Other prospects looked at by the Corps have included Barrow, the nation's northernmost community, and Kotzebue, in Western Alaska.

"There will be a great capacity for multiple ports (in the U.S. Arctic), some deepwater, some not as deep, for traffic starting to move through the region. People can't predict the volume we'll ultimately see, but it will be significant as time moves forward," Begich said.

Ship traffic in the frontier region is still relatively light but growing. The Coast Guard recorded 95 ships one day in August between Prudhoe Bay and Wainwright off Alaska's northern coast, raising concerns about how the Coast Guard, still minimally staffed in the region, will protect mariners, passengers and shoreline, according to the LA Times.   

Begich said it's "critical" that the U.S. support the project and other ports with something akin to the formula-funding program that provides money for the nation's highway system.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.