By Melinda Munson

The assembly unanimously approved $3,171,018 on Oct. 6 for the Shannon & Wilson Proposal for Short-Term Life, Health and Safety Rockfall Mitigation. The plan is a temporary solution for the frequent landslides occurring on Railroad Dock, which forced this season’s closure of Railroad’s forward berth and required tendering from the aft position.

The more than $3 million is meant to make the dock safe in 2023 for two smaller ships, with larger cruise liners docking at Ore Dock under the alternative mooring plan. Mayor Andrew Cremata described the short-term mitigation as a “pivot” from the long-term mitigation plan which has a price tag of around $40 million.

Borough Manager Brad Ryan explained the short-term mitigation.

“…it’s a scaling effort,” said Ryan. “A company is going to come to town called Rock Supremacy. They’re gonna go up, and they’re gonna roll the rocks, downward with pry bars – they’re gonna use airbags. “…they’re going to work on that south chute of that major slide. And that is because they’re trying to get everything to fail through that chute.”

According to Ryan, attenuators (flexible fence systems which decrease the velocity of falling rock) will be laid up top. Midway attenuators will be placed about a third of the way down as “there’s a bump on the hillside, and that kicks rocks off and launches them outward,” Ryan said. The slide’s existing bottom attenuator, which was damaged after a Sept. 25 landslide, will likely be replaced.

Once scaling is complete and attenuators are in place, Rock Supremacy will test the equipment by rolling rocks down the mountain side.

In addition, the municipality’s geotechnical team recommends laser survey equipment (total station). The total station would be installed near Small Boat Harbor with survey prisms placed along the rockslide to measure movement. A quote has not yet been received for the monitoring equipment.

The emergency declaration proclaimed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy provides some funding for landslide mitigation, but it’s a cumbersome process.

“They’re telling us they have a million dollars authorized right now,” Ryan said. “We have to make sure what we do is eligible. And we have to make sure everything gets filled out – right. And we don’t break any procedure issues. They’re saying that they can get us more money after the million. But there’s no guarantee on that … So there is a possibility that we might have to cover this,” Ryan said.

“We’ve been spending a lot of money up here,” said Assemblymember Deb Potter. “It’s – one could say – overwhelming at times. I think there are just things that we can’t say no to. I just don’t see an option. We have to do everything we can to get fencing up there.”

Assemblymember Orion Hanson also expressed his discomfort with the uncertainty of the funding but felt compelled to act.

“I feel sad every time when those rock slides come down. It undermines everyone’s confidence, every business. It’s a terrible experience for the customers, for the business owners or residents. The cruise ships don’t want to be anywhere near it. And I agree with Assemblymember Potter that we need to do something because standing by while we have rockslides every week, every several weeks, twice in a week – is not making us a world class destination. I don’t know how exactly we pay for this. I know the mayor is going to D.C. in a few weeks to lobby our delegation there for help … And while I don’t like voting for things that have an uncertain way to pay for it … I don’t think we have a lot of time to debate it.”

Hanson also pointed out that the mitigation could have an “uncertain result.”

Ryan emphasized that while the intent of the project is to have Railroad Dock open for 2023, “I think the comfort level is going to be to lighter, not to walk people down the docks, at least in mass numbers.”

Ryan addressed the cooperation between the municipality and private dock owner, White Pass.

“White Pass really came up with the original idea of this scaling and attenuation measures. They’ve been very generous – their geotechnical engineers have been working with ours. We have taken it over. We’ve met about it at least twice here, maybe three times. And so I think we’re working good together on this. They’ve made their engineers available. They’re hauling off the current slide debris as a contribution to the project, and that’s 6000 yards of material or so. …I think we’re working in a positive direction. And we’re working together on it.”

With the passage of Proposition One and $65 million in port bond funding becoming a reality, the borough is moving ahead with its emergency plan to berth two large-class ships at Ore Dock to maintain Skagway’s four-ship days. The project will cost approximately $6 million, with $4.5 million paid by the bond.

According to the borough manager’s report, “Municipal staff have met with White Pass, Cruise Line Agencies Alaska and multiple cruise lines to discuss mooring requirements and scheduling logistics. Port Director Jennings is in Seattle this week participating in simulations for docking larger-class vessels at the Ore Dock. We are on track to have permits in place in early 2023; however, we have been made aware that White Pass has also submitted a permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers to remove dock infrastructure, including pilings that would be used in the emergency project. Both permitting efforts are on the same timeline.”