City of Nome to save White Alice antennas
For those looking for a landmark on the way home by sea, tundra and air, and the comfort of things the “way they used to be,” White Alice towers at Anvil Mountain will likely stay in the picture.
The Nome Common Council voted 4-1 to save the antennas Monday evening from looming destruction by authorizing a land swap with Sitnasuak Native Corp. to assume ownership of the 12-acre site.
The city will trade two lots on West Warren Place in exchange. Sitnasuak does not own the tower site yet; an agreement would exist pending transfer to Sitnasuak by the U.S. Air Force. The agreement follows years of attempts to stabilize ownership of the landmark.
“That they are the last ones standing, it breaks my heart we would take them down,” Sue Steinacher said during public comment period.
“Sitnasuak would take them down,” a councilmember offered as correction.
SNC wanted the U.S. Air Force to demolish the towers before they took ownership, or have the city take them over, ensuring SNC would not to get stuck demolition, maintenance costs or liability.
The U.S. Airforce constructed the site in 1956 and 1957 as one of the original 31 White Alice communication sites and operated it between 1957 and 1979. The site entered surplus status in 1981.
Before White Alice came to stand on Anvil Mountain, a resident of Nome wanting to make a long distance call had to make a reservation to use one of two circuits out of town. White Alice boosted that number to a whopping 15 circuits and expanded the opportunity for chitchat.
According to the ordinance authorizing the purchase, the City of Nome would lease back the city lots at Warren Place and West C Street for five years for continued use by the public works department as a lay-down area. The city property on Warren Place has been assessed at $93,000; an appraisal of the White Alice site contracted by Sitnasuak came to $73,000. The city would not pay rent to Sitnasuak, but would be responsible for paying all property taxes on the two lots.
A clean-up operation in 2010-2011 removed panels containing asbestos from the towers and shipped out millions of pounds of soil contaminated by PCBs and diesel organics to Oregon for disposal. According to a finding by the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation in May 2014, remaining soil contamination is below approved cleanup levels. ADEC has declared no further remediation required as long as owners and users maintain compliance with conditions, including approval from ADEC for transporting groundwater or soil off the site and use of contaminated material does not violate state water quality standards.
The White Alice system of stations at intervals of up to 200 miles covered 3,100 miles of routes during the Cold War. The telecommunications system was a part of Alaska’s defense industry valued at $300 million annually in the late 1950s and early 1960s, according to documents published by telecommunications industry.
The White Alice network, conceived by Bell Telephone Laboratories engineers in 1954, answered the need for a modern communications system to serve civilian and military needs to get messages through static and all weather conditions.
The military relied on White Alice connections as an early warning system in event of Soviet attack. BTL engineers recommended a new technology that used a “feed horn” in front of the antenna to spray a radio signal containing many telephone conversations and telegraph messages against the curved surface of the antenna which then beamed it toward the horizon. A very small fraction of the signal would survive and then bounce down off a layer of atmosphere surrounding the earth called the troposphere. An antenna at the next White Alice station would pick up the signal, amplify it, and bounce it on its way to the person waiting at the end of the circuit. The towers “do have a value to the community, and tourism value,” Mayor Richard Beneville observed. “The price is small for the benefit in the long run.”
Councilman Tom Sparks abstained from voting on the White Alice question as a requirement of his employment with federal Bureau of Land Management which has been involved in the past concerning the land transfer.
Among other victorious forward developments, the city learned Monday that a request for $3.2 million for design of the deep-draft Port of Nome expansion had been partially satisfied with $1.6 million in Gov. Bill Walker’s capital budget proposal. Additionally, work will begin finally to repair the Cape Nome Jetty following damage from a storm in 2011. Also, the council approved the city’s participation in a multi-agency task force to address serious housing issues in Nome.
In other business April 11, the council authorized City Manager Tom Moran to amend an existing agreement with PND Engineers for additional services for the Cape Nome Jetty repair adding the amount of $104,595.
City of Nome has been working with federal and state agencies—state Homeland Security Div. of Emergency Services and FEMA to nail down a correct scope of work and funding to repair damage to the jetty from a storm in 2011. The jetty is part of Nome’s port facilities as an alternate site for moving cargo and equipment and exporting gravel and stone products.
PND Engineers has been involved in the negotiations with the agencies. Because of delays in resolving the city’s award appeal, PND has had to perform more work than proposed, requiring a budget modification to prepare design and specifications documents and provide quality control during construction. All necessary funding will come from grant dollars, according to Moran.
Housing to front burner?
Nome is currently experiencing a deficiency in number and quality of affordable housing units along with an upsurge in price of available units. Pursuant to a resolution passed by Nome Planning Commission, the council passed a resolution April 11 authorizing Moran to sanction participation in a multi-agency task force addressing these issues within city limits. The planning commission resolution called for an effort including but not limited to City of Nome, Norton Sound Health Corp., Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, Kawerak, Sitnasuak, Nome Eskimo Community and Nome Emergency Shelter Team (NEST).
No rooms at the inn
Doug and Judy Martinson, owners of the Sluice Box hotel, came to the council for help with a shutdown of the facility since January stemming from a visit by the state Fire Marshal late last year. The Martinsons claim the violation resulted from an error in paperwork by the City of Nome in 2003, which led them to believe they had satisfied requirements. All reservations to date have been cancelled, Judy Martinson told the council.
On April 11, they had been given two choices by the state: Keep the building shut down, cancel 600 bed nights of reservations, and finish the full hotel renovations, or, do a fast summer fix. The temporary fix would require they move a building, build an exit stairway, install sprinklers on the top floor and use the facility as a temporary B & B (removing it from the fire marshal’s jurisdiction) until Oct. 1 when they would shut it down and finish the hotel renovations.
Martinson had selected the summer fix option except that she feared operation as a B&B would jeopardize the property’s status as being grandfathered in as a hotel operating in a residential area. They needed “assurances that the actions we must take to get through this violation process will not jeopardize our grandfathered status,” Judy Martinson told the Council.
They also hoped the city would come forth with the use and remodel permits allowing the work ASAP to allow the facility to open by the June 1 birding season and summer guests.
Moran assured the pair they would not lose their grandfather status, and that the city would hustle with the permits.