A historic Alaska gold-mining city could be the first place where the federal government invests in a deep-water port to serve vessels in Arctic waters.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to release a study for public comment that suggests expanding the Port of Nome as a first step in improving infrastructure along Alaska's west and north coast.
Nome is south of the Bering Strait but far closer to Arctic waters than the nearest Coast Guard base in Kodiak, an island east of the Aleutian Chain.
The lack of a deep-water port along Alaska's north and west coasts has been a point of concern as climate warming has made Arctic waters more accessible. As ship traffic has increased, the corps, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies have expressed concern about responding to vessels in distress, industrial activities and oil spills.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC began exploratory drilling on offshore leases in 2012 in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The company is considering drilling again this summer in the Chukchi if it can obtain the necessary permits. Tour boats travel across the Bering Strait, and state and federal officials anticipate shipping companies could someday use Arctic Ocean routes for moving freight between continents.
Nome would welcome expanded port facilities that could handle larger, deeper fuel tankers and possibly lower fuel prices, said Joy Baker, Nome's port project manager. The city would also like to accommodate the Coast Guard fleet and vessels used for petroleum drilling, she said.
The corps in 2012 launched a three-year study on deep ports in response to increased vessel traffic. The study area covered 3,626 miles of coastline from southwest Alaska to the Canada border. The goal was to evaluate, with the state of Alaska, potential locations that could service deep-draft vessels.
Nome was the first location identified for possible expansion or development. The city offers advantages that more-northern communities don't, such as an airport that handles jets.
Its outer port, however, with annual dredging is only 22 feet deep. Ships with deeper drafts must ferry their contents to shore.
Corps spokesman Tom Findtner said by email that the agency in December tentatively selected a plan to modify the Port of Nome. The plan suggests extending Nome's causeway by 2,150 feet, building a 450-foot dock and dredging the new, protected area and entrance channel to 28 feet.
The corps report is a feasibility review that will be released for public comment, possibly by Friday. Details for expanding the port would be developed in a planning, engineering and design phase, Baker said.
"It's just a rough sketch at this point," she said.