Every spring in the remote Northwest Alaska community of Kotzebue, the huge sheets of ice covering Kotzebue Sound begin to crack and break. Massive chunks of 4-foot thick ice are carried by the powerful currents of the Kobuk and Noatak Rivers, scraping and grinding violently along Kotzebue’s only fuel and cargo dock. Decades of brutal seasonal damage, as well as typical wear and tear, have taken their toll on the 50-year-old dock.
In mid-October 2020, Crowley Fuels, the current owner of the infrastructure, completed an extensive renovation project, expanding the dock by 30 feet, adding safety features, and fortifying it against the elements, with the expectation that the investment will serve the company and the community for many years to come.
“The expanded, fortified dock will support the region’s need for fuel and cargo supplies for multiple generations,” said Crowley’s Carrie Godden, vice president, safety, facilities and compliance. “We congratulate the women and men who made the design and construction of this valuable asset a reality. We also appreciate the community support and guidance as we completed the project, which serves the needs of fuel customers, other commercial carriers and the residents who count on its use for their food, materials and equipment.”
A critical lifeline
As there are no roads connecting Kotzebue to the rest of the state, the dock infrastructure is a critical lifeline not only for the approximately 3,300 people of Kotzebue but also the residents of the many villages located around northwest Alaska.
Each spring, once the ice has broken up enough to allow safe passage, Crowley, one of Alaska’s largest fuel distributors, brings in the fuel the communities need to keep homes warm, businesses operating, and boats, planes and vehicles running throughout the coming year. The dock is also used by general cargo companies, which bring in necessary supplies ranging from food and vehicles to construction materials and equipment.
“The dock is important infrastructure for Kotzebue and the entire region; all goods come through here,” said Siikauraq Whiting, a lifelong Kotzebue resident.
Jed Dixon, project manager in Crowley’s facilities engineering department, noted, “In most ports in Alaska, docks like this are publicly owned. In this case, the dock is privately owned and operated by Crowley, but it is also used by commercial and contract carriers. That puts the responsibility on Crowley to maintain infrastructure that is a rare hybrid: privately owned, but effectively a public good.”
Planning for the future
Faced with the growing danger of a catastrophic failure of its dock, Crowley Fuels, with consultation from PND Engineers, started evaluating options in 2017. As part of the planning process, Crowley met with local government, Alaska Native organizations, community members and other groups that could potentially be impacted by the project.
“I really appreciate Crowley and their outreach. Not every entity will put in the effort to get community input,” Whiting said. “The dock belongs to Crowley, but it is part of the community.”
“We need to make sure people are safe”
Safety – namely visibility and emergency access – was a top concern voiced by community members. In response, Crowley erected 40-foot light poles with three industrial-strength LED light fixtures to illuminate the ends of the dock. Ladders were also installed in three areas along the dock face, providing safe access to and from the water.
“The entire neighborhood will benefit from the project with the extra lighting the dock has provided during the winter months. Typically, there is not a lot of light in the area so the 40-foot lights added much more of a safety measure,” Whiting said.
Protecting the Sound
Protecting the waters and wildlife of the Kotzebue Sound was also a top priority for Crowley. “The Kotzebue Sound is extremely important to the communities on its borders. 70 percent of the food people hunt, fish and gather comes from the Sound. It is a critical part of people’s way of life and nutrition,” said Alex Whiting, director of the Native Village of Kotzebue’s Environmental Program.
Before construction could begin, Crowley worked with PND Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to form a marine mammal management and mitigation plan to minimize negative impacts. The plan included establishing marine mammal observer posts during construction and shutting down work temporarily if animals came within 10 meters of the worksite. Crowley also took steps to minimize the effect of construction noise on marine mammals, and monitored both the underwater construction activity noise and the sounds of animals transiting in the area.
“The project seems innocuous as far as impact to the marine mammals,” Alex Whiting said.
Expanded dock, expanded opportunities
The multi-million-dollar new dock follows the same footprint as the current one, while building over it, expanding out by 30 feet, and securing it by driving 40-foot long sheet piles into the sea floor. “That makes it a very strong structure,” Dixon said. “When you have the sheets driven deeply enough into the seafloor, the current isn’t going to get under the structure to undermine it.”
The design offers many benefits. For example, building the dock 30 feet out into deeper water allows access for larger vessels, which “improves operational flexibility for Crowley, and opens up opportunities to the community for future economic development,” Dixon said. The expanded design also creates new space on the upland side of the dock, providing additional area for cargo operations, and a wider buffer to separate vehicular and pedestrian access from Crowley’s working area, enhancing safety for all.
With winter on its way, Crowley wrapped up the dock expansion project on schedule in mid-October. With thoughtful planning, quality construction and proper ongoing maintenance, Crowley expects the new dock to stand ready to serve the community for the next 30 to 50 years.
“It’s an investment Crowley is making back in the community,” Dixon said. “We’re here for a long time.”
About Crowley Fuels
Crowley Fuels is a leader in Alaska’s fuel industry, providing safe, dependable transportation, distribution and sales of petroleum products to more than 280 communities across the state. The company is the state’s largest wholesaler of quality fuel products, including diesel, heating fuel, propane, gasoline, aviation fuels, marine fuels and packaged petroleum products. Crowley has 18 petroleum terminals across the state with a combined 76 million gallons of storage capacity, and the company utilizes its diverse distribution channels – on land, over water and occasionally through the air – to deliver the fuel Alaskans need to live, work and play throughout the state.