Public raises concerns over planned port expansion
Public safety, the lack of engagement with tribal governments, concerns about subsistence opportunities, a pending federal marine mammal harassment authorization and the long-term planning of the city’s fiscal obligations to an expanded port facility were top concerns voiced during a public meeting last week.
Representatives from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted the meeting on Wednesday, May 17 at the Mini Convention Center in Nome to update the public on the planned Port of Nome expansion.
The City of Nome has pursued the so-called Port of Nome Modifications, Mayor John Handeland said, from 1985 “when we threw in the last rock in the water” at the existing causeway.
“Many people think this is something that just got concocted in the last year or two. That's not true. Over the years, we have seen a great benefit from the current causeway. But as many of you who are here in town will have noticed, it's overrun,” Handeland said in opening statements.
He emphasized that the port doesn't just serve Nome, but the region. “It will also serve the state and will serve the nation to a greater extent as it is improved, and designed to the more ideal length and depth so that vessels from a variety of users can actually pull in and see the benefit of it,” he said.
Handeland acknowledged that people have concerns about the project. “We’ve tried to get those concerns addressed and mitigated. We don’t want this to have negative impacts on people. We want it to be as positive as it possibly can for the community.”
Kendall Campbell, the Corps’ tribal liaison, emceed the meeting that was only sparsely attended by about 20 people, both online and in person. After Mayor Handeland’s opening statement, Campbell asked if any tribal members in the audience wanted to make an opening comment. “Although we didn’t ask anyone to provide formal opening statements, in recognition of the fact that these lands have been the ancestral lands of several Alaska Native community members we would like to provide an opportunity to make an opening comment,” she said.
Nobody came forward.
Representatives from the Corps and engineering and design firms provided a technical overview of extension of the causeway, schematics of the new causeway, including utility extensions that include water, sewer, multiple headers for fuel and electricity and high mast lighting. With extended services, there was mention of a future wastewater facility. Merlin Peterson, design lead with the Corps, spoke about the first phase of the project, which would remove the existing stub at the causeway and extend the causeway further out to sea, ending in an L-shaped spur. The assumption is that most of the rock would come from Cape Nome, and other fills from gravel pits around Nome, to be trucked to staging areas around the port. Trucking would take place on the Nome-Council Highway, Greg Kruschek Ave, Little Center Creek Road, Nome-Beltz and Center Creek Road.
Jathan Garrett, the Corps’ project manager, presented milestone dates and “hot topics.” The timeline of putting the first bids out for phase one of the project – the extension of the causeway – has been pushed from summer to fall 2023 with contracts awarded in the spring of 2024. Garrett said the cost of $490 million will be updated but they won’t be sharing the cost publicly as it is “non-disclosure, sensitive procurement information.”
Addressing the haul route, Garrett walked back the previous comment and said “I wanted to make clear that we’re not specifically saying where rock is coming from, that’s going to be a means and methods that we’re leaving up to the contractor. All haul routes will be maintained with proper dust abatements.”
He identified housing as one of the “hot topics.” “Each of the contractors that we’ve met with over the past two years, and at two of our Industry Days, have all indicated that they would bring in a man camp to house their personnel. And that remains the plan. W’re currently working with the city right now to identify where that land will be,” he said.
Since the cost share of the general navigational features (the Corp’s portion of the project) was by Congress reduced from a 75/25 percent cost share to 90/10 percent (with the Corps paying 90 and the City paying 10 percent) of the Corps’ costs, the construction agreement between the Corps and the City is scheduled to be executed in August. Garrett also said subsistence user meetings will be scheduled in the next couple of months and that the Corps is working on a major permit, a so-called incidental harassment authorization for marine mammals, issued by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
NMFS has opened a public comment period on May 2 to comment on the rather lengthy and complicated request for the “take of 10 species of marine mammals by Level B harassment.” The Corps or NMFS does not expect serious injury or death resulting from the port construction. However, the authorization is necessary as the Corps proposes to use pile driving that would introduce underwater sounds that may result in “level B” harassment of marine mammals. The Incidental Harassment Authorization, IHA for short, would be effective from May 1, 2024 until April 30, 2025. The notice identified gray whales, minke whales, killer whales, beluga whales, Harbor porpoises, Steller Sea Lions, bearded seals, ribbon seals, ringed seals and spotted seals as marine mammals that could potentially be harassed by the port construction.
Other than posting the notice in the Federal Register and on NOAA’s website, there was no public notice given to Nome subsistence users or the broader public. No public notice was issued to this newspaper of record. Also some relevant materials, a referenced Peer Review Panel report of the Monitoring Plan, were not posted on the NMFS website until May 22.
After the presentations, it was the public’s turn to ask questions. Chuck Menadelook wanted to know why walruses were not included in the incidental harassment authorization? Several incidents of walruses hauling out on the causeway rocks have been documented, as well as walrus calves resting on gold dredges. That question remained unanswered.
Menadelook also commented that some big assumptions were made that leave the city responsible for paying port costs. “After the Army Corps of Engineers is done building the port, Nome is stuck holding the maintenance fees and upkeep of the port. Nome is really small, can’t support a port, you know, much bigger than it already is. So my question is, how do you plan to maintain this port if for some reason the usage doesn’t happen?” Handeland answered that yes, those are big assumptions, but “we have documentation, year after year of increases in the traffic that has come through and the amount of cargo that comes through the port of Nome. And there's no reason for us to believe that it will start going the other way.”
Anna Rose McArthur wanted to know, in light of salmon crashes occurring in western Alaska, what are the plans to accommodate salmon passage in and out of the Snake River during construction and dredging activities? The answer: Put the question in writing and we’ll get back to you.
Adeline Akłaasiq Ahmasuk of Nome expressed her disappointment with the earlier attempt by the Corps’ tribal liaison to invite a tribal member to stand up and speak. “The invitation for tribal representation, that was extremely disappointing to see, just be casually brought up and then expect a tribal rep to come and stand up? That’s not how you engage with tribal governments,” she said. She raised several points from the lack of tribal engagement, the lack of including the Native community in the process of developing the port that she said is not supported by the majority of tribal people and community members. She said that the development of a deep water port and increased traffic will open up the Bering Strait to larger and more destructive vessels leading to increased pollution, disturbance and development. “The strait does not need further increased pollution, but rather protections as it is a pinch point in migration for millions of species for animal habitat,” she said.
She commented on the exclusion of walruses and salmon considerations in the proposed incidental harassment authorization request and raised concerns about the specter of construction man camps.
Billi Jean Miller, who lost her twin sister to murder and her friend Florence Okpealuk is still missing after three years, said she is scared of the prospect of man camps, of more traffic coming into Nome and raised the concern that NPD won’t be able to handle any additional crime or MMIP cases.
Campbell said in closing,
that those concerns were brought up before. “But that doesn't mean we can't take what we've heard tonight, brainstorm and come up with potential ways that we can communicate and provide you some of the information that you have requested this evening,” she said.
To comment on the IHA go to https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/incidental-take-authorization-us-a...