To Plan Port’s Future, City Looks to Current Users

A diagram of the proposed upgrades includes wider crane rails (black dotted line), new piling and reshaping (blue shaded area) and larger vessels that might use the facility (outlined in water). (Courtesy: City of Unalaska)
A diagram of the proposed upgrades includes wider crane rails (black dotted line), new piling and reshaping (blue shaded area) and larger vessels that might use the facility (outlined in water). (Courtesy: City of Unalaska)

Unalaska is preparing to spend tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the aging Port of Dutch Harbor. The hope is to serve bigger ships and more of them — but the companies that use the dock right now aren’t so sure that big changes are needed.

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On Wednesday night, Unalaska’s city council chambers were full of the dock workers, fuelers and cargo companies that have worked in Dutch Harbor for 25 years, exporting seafood and importing freight.

They were there to weigh in as the city gets ready to remodel the port for the future. The $44 million plan involves replacing rotten pilings under the dock that serves container ships, barges and catcher-processors — and adding anything new that those companies want to see.

That might include a setup for a bigger cargo crane — one to reach further across wider ships. The current crane is on 50-gauge rails, meaning spaced 50 feet apart. Some ports, including Anchorage, have upped that to 100 feet.

Marion Davis is a vice president for Horizon Lines, the main domestic shipper in Dutch Harbor. They own the current crane, and Davis called into Wednesday’s meeting to say the 50-foot spacing works just fine.

“A lot of ports are huge ports. So they might have six, eight, ten lanes of trucks underneath the crane. Therefore, you need the room underneath the crane. Dutch will never have that,” he said. “So a 50-gage crane should be sufficient no matter what you do.”

He did suggest bringing in a new 50-gage crane built for a wider reach. But that’s not part of the city’s project — any new cranes would have to come from the users, like Horizon.

They were the city’s official shipping partner when the dock was first built. But that contract fell apart a few years ago. In March, the city council voted not to seek a new one — from Horizon, or anyone else.

Horizon still gets a guaranteed spot for their weekly mail and grocery delivery, according to a recent letter from the city. But otherwise, the dock space is up for grabs.

That means power is an open question, too. Right now, the port runs mostly on diesel — but Doug Leggett, the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Unalaska, asked if the city’s electrical grid could handle more ships or cranes plugging in.

“I’ve spent plenty of time watching and breathing that exhaust, and I think most of us don’t realize how much pollution they pump into town when they’re sitting there,” he said. “The wind’s blowing, and you don’t see it, but it’s a lot.”

Other dock workers brought up cosmetic issues — like bad drainage, bumpy concrete and safety issues that need repairing. And they talked about the best spot for a new warehouse that barges and seafood companies could share.

All that helps the companies at the dock right now — but much of the plan still centers on the idea that more, bigger traffic is on the way. Longshoremen like Jeff Hancock were skeptical.

“I mean, you’ve got an outline of a gigantic, large, 1,200-foot vessel there at the dock,” he said, indicating a concept drawing showing different sizes of ships. “In what realistic thinking would we ever have a vessel of that size here, that we needed … to work the number of containers that that would be? … In what reality would we ever need that much capacity at this port?”

“No ice in the Arctic,” answered Dennis Robinson, a longshoreman and former city councilor.

Robinson is talking about the biggest unknown in upgrading Dutch Harbor: Will melting Arctic ice — and more Arctic infrastructure — really create that much demand from new shipping companies?

If it will, they didn’t show up on Wednesday to say so. But city ports director Peggy McLaughlin says she heard enough to move the designs forward — and to keep working on a funding plan. She needs to break ground by 2017 for permitting reasons.

“We’re building and replacing a deteriorating facility for the current users,” she said after Wednesday’s meeting. “And there certainly are users that are being turned away because of timing issues and dock schedules that will be able to utilize this proposed design.”

For now, the port’s oldest tenants will drive that design — and McLaughlin hopes it’ll leave room for those waiting in the wings.

The city and PND Engineers are taking public comment on the preliminary designs through May 29, and will hold a follow-up public meeting later this summer. You can catch a rebroadcast of Wednesday’s planning meeting on Channel 8 this Sunday, May 3 at 5 p.m.