State and federal regulators are concerned a proposed cruise dock on Ketchikan’s Ward Cove could stir up decades-old debris from the former pulp mill. The Environmental Protection Agency and others put their concerns on paper in comments to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing a permit application for the proposed two-berth megaship dock. But the developers say they’ll overcome any obstacles.
The EPA says it’s concerned that construction and operation of a megaship dock on Ward Cove could undo environmental safeguards installed nearly 20 years ago.
Its state counterparts at the Department of Environmental Conservation are also worried traffic from megaships could damage a delicate sand cap installed to restore life on the seafloor.
That’s a concern shared by marine pilot Garrett Johnson who drives cruise ships for a living. He wrote to the Army Corps that he’s worried that the giant propulsion systems would mix up legacy pollution from the former pulp mill.
“They move a lot of water around, and Ward Cove is pretty small,” Johnson said.
He says during maneuvers, the rotating Azipod propulsion systems used by most large cruise ships send force in all directions.
“I’m not convinced we’re not going to wash that sand cap and its material off the bottom,” Johnson said.
Environmental regulators also worry that pile-driving during construction could lead to the release of hazardous materials.
The EPA and DEC want the Army Corps to require environmental monitoring — both during the terminal’s construction and during the actual operation of the dock once it comes online.
Developers behind the $50 million partnership say they aren’t worried. The megaships will be docking in more than 100 feet of water.
Fairbanks businessman John Binkley is one of the project’s principals.
“So, we don’t believe that there is going to be disruption. However, we think that the agencies are correct, in that we need to go in and do baseline data to find out exactly what the status of the cap is, what the health of the marine life and the bottom of the ocean is in there, and then monitor it as we bring the ships in. And if we are disturbing, that sand cap, then we’re responsible for replacing that and repairing that,” Binkley said.
Norwegian Cruise Lines isn’t investing cash into the project. Instead, it’s committed to berthing its ships at Ward Cove. The Miami-based cruise giant already brings two of its largest ships to Ketchikan and plans to add more sailings in 2020.
Binkley says the Ward Cove project is a symbol of Ketchikan’s rebirth from a former timber center to booming tourist destination with more than 1.2 million cruise visitors projected in 2020.
The Ketchikan Pulp Company’s Ward Cove plant had been the town’s largest employer.
“The pulp mill was really the economic heart of Ketchikan and a lot of Southeast because the logging and the timber in that area relied on the mill to process all that,” Binkley said.
Its abrupt closure in 1997 changed the town. With the timber industry gone, the economic engine driving Ketchikan had disappeared. But slowly, the town re-emerged as one of Alaska’s top cruise ship destinations.
“And our vision really is to rehabilitate that site, to restore it,” Binkley said. “And to give visitors coming to Alaska a sense of the history of the the what Ketchikan and Southeast was about”
That would translate into a private dock seven miles from downtown and outside city limits.
The City of Ketchikan wrote to the Army Corps saying the project threatens to worsen congestion. The 11-page letter also questions the size, scale and location of the development. It’s asked the Army Corps to hold a public hearing before making any decision.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is also concerned. In its comment to the Army Corps, the department said the area is an important area for a variety of salmon species. It’s worried damage to the sand cap and the potential release of contaminants underneath could disturb marine life at Ward Cove.
The DEC’s Water Division released its own comments supporting the EPA’s pollution controls.
The comment period closed on Thursday. Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers say they’ve received voluminous amounts of letters from citizens. Those are expected to be publicly released on Sept. 25.
Developers say they hope to have the private dock ready to receive its first ships next May.
Jacob Resneck contributed additional reporting from Sitka.