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Port of Alaska Makes Major Modern Move

Port of Alaska Makes Major Modern Move

Decade-long Modernization Plan Could Approach Nearly $2 Billion

By Thomas Renner

When the Port of Alaska opened in 1961, the largest container ships were about 800 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units), which measures the volume of units in 20-foot long containers. In shipping, TEUs are the standard unit of measure.

Since then, however, containerships have increased dramatically in size. Today’s vessels stretch out to 25,000 TEUs, which can take up to 24 bays. Since the early 2000s, containerships have expanded from a high of 8,500 TEUs to today’s shipping behemoths, which can weigh up to 165,000 tons. Larger ships also require more depth at port. For ships above 10,000 TEUs, a depth of 50 feet is required. Many ports are inaccessible due to depth limitations.

For decades, the Port of Alaska did little to meet the needs of the larger vessels. Now, the Anchorage-based port is in the midst of a five-stage, decade-long modernization plan that will serve as a critical piece of infrastructure for the nation’s 49th state. 

The project, which could reach $1.8 billion, will accommodate modern shipping operations; improve port operations, safety and efficiency; and improve resilience to earthquakes. The first stage is the construction of the Petroleum and Cement terminal, which is expected to be completed in late 2022.

“The dock is more than a half century old, is worn out and needs to be replaced,’’ said Jim Jager, director of Business Continuity and External Affairs at the Port of Alaska. “Climate, tides, and seismic conditions all play a part. Cargo handling was much different when this port was built. We’re working with a facility that was built for shipping in the 1960’s and 70’s. Technologies have changed, cargo ships have gotten bigger, taller, and wider. We’re limiting the number of vessels that can dock here.”

Critical Terminal

While the modernization project will involve just about every area of the port, the Petroleum and Cement Terminal is a critical piece of the state’s infrastructure. 

Ninety-five percent of the state’s refined petroleum products enter through the Anchorage-based port. Nearly all the jet fuel required by Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson military facility also enters through the Port of Alaska. 

It’s not just Alaska residents that rely on the fuel that flows into the terminal. The airport is a global cargo hub, allowing for freighters transporting cargo between North American and Asia to increase payload by refueling in Anchorage. About 50 percent of all air cargo transported between Asia and North American flies through Anchorage. A report from the McDowell group said Boeing projects air cargo between North America and Asia to grow at 4.7 percent through 2037.

While significant, the port’s role as a tactical U.S. defense outpost is perhaps even more important. The Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is a combination of Air Force and Navy troops. Elmendorf Air Force base is the largest military installation in Alaska, with more than 800 buildings and 6,000 military personnel from all branches of the service. All sorts of military aircraft are housed at the base, including helicopters. All the fuel that is used at the base comes through the Port of Alaska.

“As soon as the port shuts down, the Department of Homeland Security shuts down,’’ Jager said. “We are only 9.5 hours away from 90 percent of the world’s population. We play an important part in the nation’s national defense system.”

A Dock on the Brink

The new terminal replaces one that opened in 1965. The climate took a toll on the terminal, but a 2018 earthquake exacerbated an already serious situation. Pilings, which had shown signs of serious corrosion, were damaged in the earthquake. 

“Engineers say the dock is vulnerable to progressive collapse,’’ Jager told the Anchorage Daily News at the time. Individual pile failures may not cause the overall dock to fail, until they create a failure that moves from one pile to adjacent pilings.

The terminal to be replaced was the port’s primary petroleum terminal and the state’s only dock equipped with a pneumatic bulk cement unloading and transfer system. The new PCT needed to be completed before the existing dock failed or is demolished. It is essential the port maintains capacity to meet Alaska’s needs for fuel and cement.

The PCT is a pile-support dock that is designed to last 75 years, with the ability to survive a 1,000-year seismic event (i.e., an earthquake of a magnitude that has 0.1 percent chance of happening in any given year). 

The PCT trestle and platform are supported by 123 precast concrete units and 2,903 cubic yards of concrete. Several of the precast concrete units weigh more than 250,000 pounds.

The 180-foot piles weigh about 150 tons each and were driven as single units to save time and maintain construction schedules. Each pile has a placement margin of less than six inches to fit precast pile caps. 

Great Northern Engineering designed the project, which included more than 4,400 pages of design calculations, 285 sheets of plan drawings and details and 390 pages of technical specifications. A team from Pacific Pile & Marine drove approximately 200 piles. The project included constructing the PCT trestle and loading platform, building the mooring dolphins, and installation of utilities as well as the petroleum and cement handling infrastructure. Nearly 125 of the piles were later removed.

“They built a temporary trestle while they were building the permanent trestle,’’ Jager said. “They needed something that they could work from. Once they were done, they were able to pull back many of the piles.”

One of the twists in the pile-driving was the inclusion of “bubble curtains” to protect sea mammals by reducing underwater pile-driving noise. Bubble curtains are created by positioning a concentric sleeve and perforated ring around piles that are being driven.

The pile driving also needed to cease at several points when beluga whales entered the vicinity in the Upper Cook Inlet. The whales are an endangered species, and federal regulations prohibit pile driving when endangered marine mammals are sighted in a protected area that extends about 1.5 miles around the PCT site. A team of mammal observers monitored the protected area and notified construction officials to cease construction activities when whales entered the vicinity.

Withstanding Earthquakes

The modernization plan also required the upgrades to withstand the impact of earthquakes. Alaska has more earthquakes than any other region in the United States, and a 9.2 quake near Anchorage in 1964 resulted in 131 deaths.

The 2018 earthquake was certainly a wakeup call for the port. It occurred about 10 miles north of Anchorage, registering 7.1. The National Tsunami Warning Center issued warnings for nearby coastal areas, including Cook Inlet. As a result of the 38-second quake, 20 percent of the pilings of the newest dock at the Port of Alaska – built in 1974 – failed. “Had it continued for another seven seconds,’’ a report in Alaskalandmine.com reported, “widespread liquefaction could have occurred, possibly leading to a total failure and collapse of one or more of the port docks.”

Construction officials took strong measures to guard against future interruption to port services due to earthquakes. One interesting aspect of the project was the installation of three roof hatches on the trestle. Manufactured by BILCO, a manufacturer of specialty access products, the hatches are 10 x 20 feet. Due to the size, the leaves needed to be shipped separately and assembled on site. The hatches allow access to fuel piping expansion joints. 

“The hatches were specified to shelter containment pans, which are installed to protect environmental contamination should the piping expansion joints fail in a seismic event,’’ said Brett Gunderson of Haskell Corporation, a mechanical and structural subcontractor. “The hatches also allow access to the expansion joints should they need to be replaced.” 

Gunderson added: ”The stainless-steel construction was important, but we also chose BILCO because the hatches were very large, and we knew that BILCO would design and fabricate them to operate easily and safely.” 

Unacceptable Failure

Alaska’s reliance on the port cannot be overstated. It has been described as the “economic heart of Alaska,” with more than 3.5 million tons of products coming through the port each year. The port supports $14 billion worth of economic activity in the state, and 90 percent of Alaskans depend on goods handled by the POA.

While the port is not exceptionally large, its importance is unquestionable. “We are a small port, but that’s a function of Alaska being a relatively small state,’’ Jager said. “The size of the facility is never going to be one of the nation’s largest ports. But we do have critical roles, in the state, nation and even internationally. We are incredibly important to the commerce and economic health of many people. This modernization project is something we need to get done. The port is essential to our economy.”

Thomas Renner writes on building, construction, architecture and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.