Many Ketchikan residents want public hearing on Ward Cove dock

(Photo credit KRBD)

Many Ketchikan residents want a say in whether a proposed dock for the newest and largest cruise ships to visit Alaska goes forward. Concerned citizens put their thoughts on paper in comments to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ward Cove is a narrow bay seven miles north of downtown Ketchikan. Developers want to put in a two-berth floating dock to host megaships like the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Bliss. But to do that, they need a permit from the Corps. That federal agency invited the public to comment on the project through Sept. 19.

Dozens of those public comments obtained by KRBD ask the Corps to hold a public hearing on the project. Ketchikan resident Jill Jacob says the Ward Cove area north of town is a peaceful, quiet community compared to the cruise hub downtown.

“All of a sudden, you start driving north, and it’s quite a bit cooler and quieter, and yeah, it’s kind of a night and day difference,” Jacob said.

She worries the new dock could paralyze traffic as buses try to get all the megaships’ passengers from Ward Cove to downtown Ketchikan. She says a recent incident on the town’s main highway had traffic frozen.

“Traffic was backed up for quite a long time,” Jacob said. “Nobody could go north or south. So I can’t imagine what would happen if there was a cruise ship.”

Jacob also says she has serious concerns about legacy pollution from the former Ketchikan Pulp Company mill site. Last week. the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation each submitted their own comments echoing those concerns. They worry cruise ships’ thrusters and pile-driving during construction could damage a delicate sand cap installed to protect seafloor-dwelling creatures from pulp mill waste.

Ketchikan Indian Community President Norm Skan shares the EPA and DEC’s worries. Like Jacob, Skan submitted a comment asking the Corps to take the question to the public.

“We just want to have one time where everybody can get together to discuss the whole project, just to make important decisions,” Skan said.

He says damage to the Ward Cove area could have spillover effects.

“Our concern isn’t just for our tribal citizens but for the Ketchikan area as a whole, and anything that happens out there impacts the whole community,” Skan said.

The City of Ketchikan submitted its own comment. Mayor Bob Sivertsen signed a letter on behalf of the city council.

“Of course we all want to make sure our environment is safe and sound,” Sivertsen said.

He says he’s heard a lot about the Ward Cove project from the public, and he wants to take their concerns to the permitting agency.

“There was numerous people that requested that we have some kind of interaction with them in regards to discussing the permit, so that’s what our take was on it,” Sivertsen said.

But Ward Cove isn’t inside city limits.

“I think the borough has a bigger stake in regards to the environmental issues and things like that,” Sivertsen said.

But in its own comment, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough didn’t request a public hearing. The borough’s letter supports the Ward Cove plan. Borough Manager Ruben Duran says that’s because the plan is consistent with the borough’s official goals — increasing tourism, expanding port facilities and making the area more attractive for commerce.

“Based upon the information we have received so far, they meet those established policies,” Duran said.

Fairbanks-based businessman John Binkley is one of the developers behind the proposed Ward Cove dock. He says most of the comments he’s read bring up environmental concerns. But with comments from the EPA and DEC already on record, Binkley is skeptical there’s anything else to be discussed.

“I don’t know that there’s anything new that would come out as a result of a public hearing,” Binkley said.

Army Corps project manager Estrella Campellone says the corps will hold a public hearing if they determine they need more information, whether about the new port’s environmental impacts, transportation concerns, or something else. She says the corps takes ever comment seriously. 

“Well, we are mandated by regulation that we will give equal consideration to all the comments that we receive,” Campellone said.

She says a decision on a public hearing will be made by Oct. 19.