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How Nome’s Deep Draft Port Got One Step Closer To Becoming a Reality

Nome port
The Port of Nome. Photo: Joy Baker, Port Director.

A potential forthcoming Arctic Deep Draft Port in Nome recently cleared a major hurdle. This has been a ten year wait for some, but more time spent waiting is ahead, as the completion of the project depends on Congress’ authorization.

Nome’s Port Director Joy Baker, along with those who she describes as “Nome’s old guard” – the Nome Port Commission, Nome City Council, Denise Michels, Josie Bahnke, and many others who were in city government at the time or just involved over the past ten years; saw the need to service more military vessels and oil tankers in Nome, especially after the emergency fuel delivery to the Goldrush City in 2012.

Almost ten years later, the United States’ first Arctic deep draft port is set to be built in Nome, pending just one last major hurdle – authorization from Congress.

“I was holding my breath to get the signature on the Chief’s report, we’ve been targeting that since the beginning of this study (feasibility study)….(it’s) a pretty coveted signature.”

– Joy Baker

A few weeks ago [May 29th], the Nome port project was signed off on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Chief’s Report was sent to Congress. For Baker and the Port of Nome staff, receiving word of that signature was a huge relief.

The U.S. Army Corps’ Lt. General Todd Semonite signing the Chief’s Report for Nome’s Arctic Deep Draft Port project. Photo from the Corps, used with permission (2020).

“I was trying to figure out how to do a backflip without hurting myself, maybe a couple cartwheels…I wanted to do something, but I knew if I tried any of those things I’d be in dire straits, so I just went outside of the house and did a little dance up and down the driveway; a little victory dance.”

– Joy Baker

Another individual who has been involved with this port project for many years is Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan. Sullivan recently helped pass federal legislation out of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee with a line of text to include Nome’s Arctic Deep draft port by name.

“That language I just mentioned serves as a placeholder for authorization for the deep draft port project in Nome, which would be included, if the Corps Chief’s Feasibility Report is completed before the final passage of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act.”

– Senator Dan Sullivan

Based on this final report, the proposed plan for Nome’s deep draft port would extend the west causeway by approximately 3,000 feet in an L shape, create a new deep-water basin with a depth of 40 feet or so, and make several other changes, as Baker explains.

“So add three additional docks and a deep-water basin at minus 40 foot water…then the next phase would be to remove the east breakwater entirely and take that structure east, and that specific location hasn’t been defined because this is conceptual.”

– Joy Baker

This ongoing effort has met some pushback though, especially from a regional tribal consortium, Kawerak. Austin Ahmasuk, who is the head of the marine program at Kawerak, shared his personal opinions at a public meeting in Nome hosted by the Corps last July (2019).

“This is port development for the sake of port development…The Port of Nome modification study and potential construction includes racialize(d) policies that have destroyed Alaska Native people and their history in this community.”

– Austin Ahmasuk

Earlier this year, Kawerak released a letter voicing their concerns with the Corps’ feasibility study. The main issues related to a lack of access for subsistence users in small boats, the potential of negative environmental impacts from the project, and the concern that the port could increase the cost of living or further burden Nome residents.

Senator Sullivan emphasizes that he and other members of Congress will keep those issues in mind as Nome’s Arctic Deep draft port moves forward.

“And we’re going to continue what we’ve done, which is have a good dialogue with, not only our fellow Alaskans on the topic, but working to ensure that the Corps addresses Kawerak’s latest comment.”

– Senator Dan Sullivan

Based on the final Chief’s Report signed by the commander of the Corps, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 54th U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, some of these issues have been addressed.

However, the project also poses some risks, so the Corps stated it will continue coordinating with the National Marine Fisheries Service as effects from potential underwater blasting, which are required during port construction, could disturb marine mammals.

In addition to its potential effects on subsistence and the marine environment, Nome’s Deep Draft Port comes with a large price tag, more than $490 million. Baker says the City of Nome would be responsible for a certain percentage of the final costs, totaling out to about $300 million. But she expects that amount to go down before the final bill is due.

“I expect that we are looking at a smaller piece for Nome because, everyone that we’ve talked to in Washington D.C. and in Juneau understand that this is a national facility, a national port for the country, it’s a National Defense port ultimately; and therefore the cost cannot be put on the backs of the residents again.”

– Joy Baker

If Nome does in fact see this project through and host the U. S’s first Arctic deep draft port, Senator Sullivan sees great military benefits could come from it. Baker sees the benefits for Nome and the region as going beyond the military ones.

“I think Nome will see benefits on the commodities, on the increased commerce, on the additional services that we’ll be needing to provide and that will provide jobs in town, bring the economy back up, and at the same time give us a defense position that we need and the ability to stage oil response outfits.”

– Joy Baker

Nome’s Port Director also emphasized that the time it will take for the project to complete the design and construction phases could still be more than five years. Meanwhile, this waiting period allows the community to build up its local infrastructure in the interim.

America’s Water Infrastructure Act, the bill containing Nome’s Deep Draft Port, is currently in the Senate. If the project does get authorized by Congress, then it will next go to the design phase.

Image at top: The current Port of Nome. Photo from Joy Baker, Port Director (2017).

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