‘Slow motion disaster’ threatens state’s key port

by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

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The Port of Anchorage is literally coming apart, threatening to upend the state’s essential supply chain in what officials have called “a slow motion disaster.”

Every year, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent simply coping with the aggressive corrosion of the port’s most basic infrastructure. But without hundreds of millions to pay for major rehabilitation work, the nexus point for most of the state’s fuel, food, and building supplies could be wiped out by a minor earthquake or long-term decay.

Terminal 1 of the port, completed in 1961. 
Photo courtesy of Port of Anchorage

At the very bottom of low tide in Cook Inlet, a small group of representatives from a shipping company, the port, and the mayor’s office climbed into a little v-hull boat equipped with two outboard motors. They came for an up-close look at the latest damage to the steel beams propping up the port.

Beneath the docks is a forest of thick brown steel tubes called pilings.

“This one, for whatever reason, is corroding as fast as the older ones even though it’s a new structure,” said Lon Eddlledge, pointing toward a cluster of tubes extending from the mud to cement berths up above.

Elledge is the program manager for CH2M in Alaska in charge of overseeing the port’s “Modernization Project.” CH2M’s contract on the project is valued at up to $30 million over five years, with the possibility of extensions worth another $12 million.

Elledge is giving an early-season tour of just how dire the situation is for the  pilings, upon which basically the whole port rests.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, left, looks at pilings beneath the Port of 
Anchorage docks as Lon Elledge, right, explains the scale of corrosion .
Photo by Eric Keto, Alaska Public Media                                        

“Can you put us up on that piling?” Elledge asked the boat’s captain, who eased the vessel next to a beam covered in a what looked like slimy orange mud. Then Elledge tells us to touch it.

“It’s a combination of the rust and the corrosion that’s going on,” he said flatly.

It was soft to the touch, and unsettlingly easy to scrape away with my finger nail. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz even puts a bit on his tongue.

“What’d it taste like?” I ask.

“Metal. Salt,” Berkowitz replied. “Seaweed.”

Video by Eric Keto, Alaska Public Media

The sludge, as Berkowtiz pointed out, is organic.

But this corrosive process is wearing down more than 1,400 metal pilings that facilitate an enormous share of the state’s economy and commerce.

The main culprits are environmental and climatological factors that drag ice and sediment across the pilings like sandpaper each tide. The corrosion is worst at the mud-line, where the combination of organic chemistry and structural duress takes the greatest toll on the pilings as they enter the ground.

“I don’t have the technical term with me, but it’s almost like a film that gets on a pile,” Elledge said. “As it washes off, or the ice takes it off, it exposes fresh pile. And then it comes back.”

The pilings are invisible most of the time, hidden by tides and obscured by the docks overhead. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent so far on fancy project names like “port expansion” or “modernization,” state residents don’t get to see what the money buys. And mitigation measures are surprisingly expensive.

Rust on the port pilings. | Photo courtesy of Port of Anchorage

Each year, the port spends $3 million applying what are essentially bandaids: metal sleeves that are wrapped around the corroded base of exposed pilings the crews can access. Workers can install almost a hundred sleeves in a season. The devices have no structural benefit, and do nothing for seismological resiliance that could help withstand an earthquake. They simply slow the pace of corrosion. After 10 to 20 years the water eats through the sleeves, too.

Asked if this a normal problem that other American ports this age have to deal with, Elledge replied, “No, this is specific to here.”

“I’ve worked other ports and they have corrosion issues,” he went on, “but it’s pretty benign compared to this.”

In 10 years, when the sleeves start failing, the port expects they’ll have to begin taking on less weight as ships unload, slowing down operations for shipping companies and nudging up costs for consumers.

Currently, taxpayers in Anchorage spend $5 million a year maintaining what the administration has called “marginally adequate” operations.

Rust on the port pilings, left, and sleeves put on to slow the pace of corrosion. | Photos by Eric Keto, Alaska Public Media

There are already infrastructure problems clogging business operations for the companies that moved 1.7 million tons of cargo through the port in 2015.

One of them is Tote Maritime, which brings in two ships a week to unload everything from groceries to heavy equipment. As our little boat chugs toward Terminal 3, where Tote’s vessels dock, Vice Presidents Grace Greene pointed toward a large rectangular dredge scrapping mud off the sea-floor. It’s early in the year for dredging to start, but more silt is piling up due in part to the recent warm winters, which makes it harder for the company’s ships to dock.

“There have been several times over the past three winters where we’ve had to change our operation, either leave early or get creative with ballast on the ship to be able to stay at the dock,” Greene said.

Tote says that while their unloading procedures are likely to become more efficient if port infrastructure is modernized, they’re able to operate adequately the way things are right now. The bigger concern to Greene is what will happen if nothing is done in the near future. That, she believes, opens to door to much costlier problems if decay or a natural disaster grind the flow of goods to a halt.

''The port is basic infrastructure for our state, and if we can’t focus on making sure our basic infrastructure is good and sustainable then that’s gonna be a problem down the road for all of us.'' Grace Greene, Vice President of Tote Maritime

“The port is basic infrastructure for our state, and if we can’t focus on making sure our basic infrastructure is good and sustainable then that’s going be a problem down the road for all of us,” she said.

Greene visited Juneau this session to lobby lawmakers to find a strategy to pay for the modernization project. The Berkowitz administration has requested that a $290 million dollar bond go before voters on the statewide ballot in November.

That would pay for phase two of the project, replacing the terminals used by the two shipping companies, Tote and Matson. Phase one involves stabilizing earthwork to the north and replacing the terminal that handles petroleum products and cement, at a projected cost of $127 million.

Under current designs for phase two, the new terminals would be built 150 feet further out in the water, at a deeper depth with a faster water column depositing less sediment. They would also be built differently: A wider diameter, with thicker steel, filled in with concrete and Rebar. That way, Elledge explained, the steel is “sacrificial,” but bolstered by a secondary support system designed to last the better part of a century.

“The question was asked, ‘what do we need to keep cargo moving across the docks at the port for the next 75 years?'” Elledge asked. “The answer is: phase one and phase two.”

If the solution is clear, then what’s holding up the money? Politics, which is the focus in part three of this series.

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