Western Alaska is finally set to get a long-sought piece of infrastructure that proponents say will not only benefit the region’s economy but also emergency preparedness and response and even national security.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District officials on Jan. 20 announced a $250 million allocation for the first phase of work to expand Nome’s port. The funding to grow and deepen the Port of Nome comes after more than a decade of design modifications and environmental reviews for the project, as well as continued pressure to advance it from many of Alaska’s elected leaders.
The $250 million for Nome is part of $940 million allocated by Corps officials to civil works projects across Alaska.
The overall estimated $618 million Port of Nome project will help bolster the nation’s leadership in the ever-busier Arctic, Alaska Rep. Don Young said in a statement about the broader funding package.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said he’s tried to make the Nome project a top priority of Corps and Department of Defense leadership and helped push several prior bills through Congress to keep the pre-construction work moving forward.
“I’ve been making the case for years on the need to establish greater American presence in the Arctic — vessels, personnel, and ports — as America’s strategic rivals lay claim to this important region,” Sullivan said. “The Port of Nome is poised to be that epicenter of America’s marine presence in the Arctic, and this $250 million dollar investment is a critical milestone in making America’s first strategic Arctic port a reality. In addition to bolstering our national security interests, this project will lead to greater economic opportunities for residents of Northwest Alaska.”
While not technically in Arctic waters, Nome has been identified by Corps officials as the most practicable northern location for harboring large vessels in Western Alaska.
Commercial traffic through the Bering Strait is expected to increase significantly over the long-term as sea ice continues recedes further each year, which increases the need for a port capable of accommodating more and larger emergency response and law enforcement vessels, proponents of the work insist.
More immediately, city leaders have stressed that Nome’s existing port and harbor are often overcrowded.
Nome Port Director Joy Baker wrote via email that the Corps’ announcement is “great news,” and the first phase of work should be at a 95% design level by the end of the year, at which point Corps Alaska District officials could start the process of soliciting bids from construction contractors.
Alaska District officials tentatively plan to award the first-phase construction contract in the latter part of the 2023 federal fiscal year, meaning construction would likely start in the spring of 2024, according to spokesman John Budnik, who emphasized it is still early in that process.
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Then-Alaska District Commander Col. Phillip Borders signed the final feasibility and environmental review for the Nome Port expansion in March 2020, which also largely finalized the design criteria for a project that had its scope changed several times in prior years.
National Corps leaders approved the plan in June 2020, setting the stage for Congress to fund the work.
The latest plan — released in draft form in January — calls for roughly doubling the length of the port’s existing west causeway to reach approximately 2,100 feet farther into Norton Sound with a nearly 1,400-foot breakwater to protect harbor entrance from incoming waves. The L-shaped barrier would also hold two new 450-foot and one new 600-foot docks to handle the larger vessels that have started calling on Nome, according to Corps officials.
The existing east causeway-breakwater would be demolished and replaced with a larger, 3,900-foot causeway-breakwater that would greatly expand the port’s outer basin. Approximately three-quarters of the material from the existing east causeway would be used to build its replacement, according to the study.
The bigger outer port basin would also be dredged deeper — from 22 feet currently to 28 feet — and the three new docks would be near the end of the longer west causeway-breakwater in an area dredged to at least 40 feet deep.
A cost-share plan to cover the $600 million-plus overall price tag calls for the federal government to commit nearly $390 million for the in-water construction and dredging, with the City of Nome or other local funders coming up with the remaining funds for navigation features, utilities and facilities such as docks and access roads, according to Corps officials.
Past concepts to further develop Nome’s port or build a wholly new deepwater facility elsewhere on the Seward Peninsula were based on the expectation that the oil and gas industry was poised to start large-scale operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the early 2010s. In 2015 the Corps released a $210 million plan to expand the area of protected water in front of Nome and dredge the area for larger vessels. The Corps’ work on that plan started as early as 2011.
However, when Shell announced later that year that its $7 billion Chukchi oil exploration effort had come up empty and it would cancel its offshore Arctic drilling program later, the corresponding plan to renovate Nome’s port to better handle oil and gas industry support vessels was scrapped as well. Congress then turned around in 2016 and subsequently broadened the scope of potential benefits the Corps is allowed to evaluate when considering marine infrastructure projects in Alaska to include “the viability of regions,” rather than strictly looking at a direct and immediate cost-benefit review for a given project.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.