WASHINGTON (CN) – Twenty of the roughly 375 endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whales freed themselves last month after they were beached near Anchorage, but the whales remain in a tight spot. They are vulnerable to the disorientation caused by underwater explosives used in the ongoing construction of a vastly expanded Port of Anchorage, an expansion that has been made without environmental analysis and with the aid of political connections and a no-bid contract that uses a questionable method of patented, underwater construction.
The Cook Inlet beluga population has plummeted by more than 50 percent over the last decade. Nevertheless, the National Marine Fisheries Service has given the Port of Anchorage official permission to harass the endangered whales with noise from pile driving and explosions at a level that causes “disruption of behavioral patterns,” for a port expansion that fills in 135 acres of prime beluga and salmon habitat. Loud noise is known to injure the whales’ ears and interfere with their sonar abilities.
The port’s director, former governor William Sheffield, along with the president of the port expansion’s primary contractor, Dennis Nottingham, have been deeply involved in raising funds for Republican groups and members of Congress. The port project has also been given a helping hand by a series of federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation’s Marine Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Defense Department.
Sheffield has been investigated in the past on an allegation that he steered a lucrative contract to a fundraiser, and he has been instrumental in getting green lights for the Anchorage port expansion, according to groups opposed to the project.
“It’s like there’s pixie dust and he kind of spreads it around and everyone kind of nods in agreement,” says Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of environmental watchdog group Cook Inletkeeper. “I’ve never seen a project that size that went through with so little scrutiny,” Shavelson continued, “It didn’t even get an Environmental Impact Statement.”
Susan Clark of the Maritime Administration, which is managing the project, explained that the administration didn’t have to get the statement because the administration’s environmental assessment “resulted in a finding of no significant impact.”
“We think that conclusion was wrong,” said Michael Frank, a lawyer for the environmental law firm, Trustees for Alaska. He argued that a project “which is destroying the last vestiges of an important wetlands and mudflats area,” clearly does have an environmental impact.
The expansion, which began in 2004 and is scheduled to finish in 2014, uses a patented, open cell sheet pile method instead of the traditional pile-supported dock. This design uses interlocking steel sheets to form a wall all the way to the sea floor, and fills the 135 acres behind the wall with gravel as a foundation for the port. It contrasts with the traditional pile design, which uses stilts.
Frank from Trustees for Alaska said the traditional pile design would be less damaging than the one being used now because the sheet design doesn’t allow fish passage. This means, among other things, that the whales will be able to corral their prey and ultimately eliminate the run, which is their source of food.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service all favored the traditional pile method over the open cell sheeting method method that eliminates the fish habitat. Nevertheless, the patented method is the one being used on the massive construction project, awarded without competitive bidding.
The project was awarded without competitive bidding because the plans are based on the open cell sheeting method invented by primary contractor Nottingham and assigned to his construction company.
Clark of the Maritime Administration said the government opted for the sheet design because of perceived cost benefits and the results of seismic reviews. But the port construction also received permits in record time, with a key permit by the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in tidal lands occurring with questionable data, according to environmental groups.
The port’s expansion has continued forward in the face of more recent concerns that the sheet pile design is not in fact earthquake safe. The Maritime Administration conducted seismic safety reviews, and has now adjusted to design to secure the structure. But Frank from Trustees for Alaska said the sheet pile structure “doesn’t have any track record” of its resilience to major earthquakes.
The price tag on the project is also contested.
The government maintains that, “The sheet pile design was determined to be less expensive than the pile supported dock.” But Frank said, “The corps did not verify that the sheet pile method was going to be cheaper,” and said they relied on the claims of the firm designing the dock. He added, “All the data that we had suggested [the traditional pile method] was going to be cheaper.”
The maritime administration did not respond to e-mailed questions over how much the port expansion would have cost had the traditional pile method been used.
Environmental groups asked Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to convene an independent panel of finance and engineering experts before the project received more funding, but the mayor denied the request.
When asked why the sheet design was chosen given its questionable cost benefits, environmental drawbacks, and weak seismic history, Frank replied, “I wish I knew. I don’t know why they were so motivated to choose that method.”
Port Project Originally Modest
Sheffield, the port director and former Alaska governor, has a history in the area of controversial public contracts. In 1985, a grand jury recommended that the Alaska Senate consider impeaching Sheffield in connection with the award of more than $9 million in a no-bid, office-leasing contract to a company partially owned by one of his campaign fundraisers, Time reported.
The inquiry was sparked by question from a Fairbanks newspaper reporter. As reported by the magazine, a grand jury concluded that Sheffield and his staff manipulated specifications to guarantee that the fundraiser’s firm would win the contract.
The jury’s report said, “The Sheffield administration has not best served the interests of the public and is unfit to fullfill the inherent duties of public office.” The Alaska Senate later held a hearing but found no clear evidence, and Sheffield was ultimately not impeached.
The port expansion project was originally planned in 1999 as a relatively modest renovation project, expected to cost $229 million.
But that all changed after Sheffield was hired as port director in 2001. “They just kind of scrapped the whole deal and decided they would mow over the whole port,” Richard Burg told the Anchorage Daily News. The newspaper said Burg lost his job as port engineer in 2002 in a dispute over the huge project, because he did not see the need for it.
In his new post, Sheffield began touting Nottingham’s patented method for renovation of the port structure, arguing that it would cost a third less than the traditional method, according the Anchorage newspaper, and would be “millions cheaper,” according to Frank with the Trustees of Alaska legal group.
But the cost kept rising under Sheffield’s direction, and is now estimated at $700 million.
The Inletkeeper group has concluded that the patented construction method is not cheaper and is in fact costing millions more than the traditional method. But no one else could bid on the contract, director Shavelson pointed out, since no one else had the rights to the patented method, owned by Nottingham and selected by Sheffield.
In October of 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale in danger of extinction, but failed to protect its habitat. The Endangered Species Act requires that habitat be protected for any species on the verge of extinction.
The whale does not migrate and spends most of its time in the upper Cook Inlet, where the port construction is underway. Pods feed both in the shallows to be filled in by the project, and further up the Knick Arm of the inlet, which is obstructed by deafening sound during construction.
“Unfortunately, the federal government has been lackadaisical about protecting the beluga,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, “while the state of Alaska has been outright hostile to the species.”
In January, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced that the State of Alaska would sue the federal government to overturn the federal government’s conclusion that the beluga is in danger of extinction. She has not filed that suit and is now out of office.
Move to Protect Habitat
Under the Obama administration, the Fisheries Service published a notice in the Federal Register in April seeking comment in the selection of part of the inlet as protected habitat. The agency said it will be considering national security and economic impacts, such as the effect on shipping oil and other commercial items.
It is requesting data on whether excluding any particular area of the inlet would “result in the extinction of the species,” according to the April 14 notice of proposed rulemaking. The agency also seeks to “monetize… to the extent practicable” the effects of protecting habitat in various areas of the inlet, seeking to put a price on the whale’s protection.
The concern over the whales’ habitat comes late in the process. The government has already spent an enormous amount of money on the project.
In April, the Defense Department, which recently designated the Port of Anchorage as one of nineteen Strategic Ports from which the U.S. deploys military support to conflicts abroad, and according to the Maritime Administration, has so far paid 55 percent of the now-projected $700 million price tag.
The port has received more federal money for construction than any other port in the nation. A Maritime Administration spokesperson justified the investment, saying Anchorage is Alaska’ principal port and serves 90 percent of the state’s population while it also serves the nation’s armed forces.
But Frank from the environmental law firm said he thinks political favors played a role, and pointed out that Sheffield, who was elected governor as a Democrat, hosted many fund raisers for Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, for former Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, and for Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
In obtaining the federal funds that are being spent in the whales’ home waters, said Frank, “The connection has undoubtedly served him well.”