The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to unveil its first steps toward expanding deep-water Arctic ports in Alaska, and Corps officials said Friday they plan to start by expanding the existing Port of Nome.
"The report is making the recommendation for construction at Nome at this time basically due to its highly developed area, having a good runway, good hospital, already strong support that's already there," said Bruce Sexauer, the Alaska Army Corps' chief of civil works.
Being first pick for a deep-water port — a pick Sexauer stressed is still provisional until public comment and other evaluations are complete — includes the Corps' plan for a 2,100-foot extension of Nome's causeway, the building of a new 450-foot dock and dredging the port down to a depth of 28 feet.
Nome's causeway currently has two docks, measuring about 200 feet each, and the harbor now goes to a depth of 22 feet. A middle dock project set to start construction this coming summer would add a third 200-foot dock.
The Corps eventually hopes to develop a system of deeper ports throughout Western Alaska. That includes the naturally deep-water of Port Clarence near Brevig Mission and Teller but residents of those communities near the western tip of the Seward Peninsula have opposed that plan. They've voiced concern over how a busy port would endanger seals, fish and other subsistence resources.
Sexauer pointed to increased traffic in the Bering Strait and growing resource extraction in the Arctic — including potential oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — as necessitating the Arctic ports, starting with Nome.
"This port will be able to provide support for those types of activities that are going on out there," he said. "This will provide (resource developers) with a closer area where they can bring in their resupply ships and offload crews closer up in the Arctic." He said expanded port capacity would similarly increase the ability for agencies to respond to emergencies in Arctic waters.
The city of Nome has thrown its support behind the Corps' plans. Port Commission Chair Jim West Jr. said that, ideally, the port could be deepened to 35 feet but he said Friday that "any extension would help us tremendously."
"The other side of the harbor … is already about 30 to 32 feet deep," West said, noting that the shelf falls away rapidly farther from shore. "I'm thinking 2,100 feet is going to get plenty deep for us."
The Corps' plans to expand to a 28-foot depth would likely accommodate larger ships from maritime groups like the U.S. Coast Guard, West said, but would fall short of the biggest fuel tankers transiting Bering Sea waters.
"The bigger the boat we get in here, the better we'll be," he added.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be in Nome Tuesday to meet city and port officials. The Corps' full report will be released to the public by the end of next week.