As an island community, Wrangell’s docks and harbors are a cornerstone of local life. But its newest harbor could have its lifespan cut in half because a critical component was never installed. It’s not too late to protect the harbor, but the costly fix will need to happen soon.
“Mother Nature is working against you the whole time,” said Harbormaster Steve Miller, standing on the embankment looking out over Heritage Harbor, about a mile south of town.
“Every harbor, when you start putting steel in salt water and then you have every boat has different metals, and not every boat maybe is perfectly wired – you’ve got AC current, you’ve got DC current, you’ve got so many different currents running around in here, that it all has to go someplace,” Miller said. “There’s grounding rods that take care of the AC currents, but DC currents, those have to find a way to ground as well.”
And finding its way to the ground often happens through steel pilings scattered throughout the harbor. That eats away at the metal.
It’s industry standard for boats and metal harbor components to have what’s called “sacrificial metal” attached – which will waste away more quickly than other materials around it, protecting the piling or boat.
But Wrangell’s Heritage Harbor, updated in 2009, never had that protection — called anodes — installed on the pilings.
In late March, Miller says his office hired a diver to check out the condition of pilings around town.
“He came out here and started doing a survey to kind of check the pilings and see what the anodes looked like,” Miller said. “He called me and he’s like, ‘There’s no anodes.’”
That’s having an effect on the Heritage Harbor pilings. Miller says they look older than other pilings that have anodes, even though the Heritage pilings are actually newer. Patches of rust underwater crumbled away under the diver’s hands to show forearm-sized patches of disintegrating metal.
“The difference is quite amazing,” he said.
Adding anodes to Heritage Harbor would be no small feat. Each anode weighs more than an average NFL linebacker. Heritage would need more than 450 of them to be welded, underwater, onto pilings throughout the harbor.
“There’s a lot there to do,” Miller said.
An engineering estimate puts the cost of the project at almost a million dollars. And that’s not including the other docks that don’t have anodes, like the pilings at the municipal shipyard or its concrete dock. Adding anodes to those spots could cost another half-million dollars or more. Funding will most likely come from the borough’s harbor reserves — the immediate need for the project doesn’t make it a great candidate for slow-moving grant funding processes.
But Miller says the work could double the lifespan of harbor components.
“These are 50- to 60-year lifespan floats and pilings,” Miller said. “Without anodes, usually around 30. So even if we can get them on within the next year or two, you know, we’re going to extend the life of the piling by probably another 30 years, at least.”
Miller says it’s not completely clear why anodes were left out of the harbor. His guess is that it came down to cost. Heritage Harbor was a grant-funded project, and it may have required penny-pinching to finish the basics.
“I don’t know that it was an oversight, I think it was probably discussed,” Miller said. “But when it came down to money, it was cut out.”
That’s pretty common, Miller says. He points out that neighboring communities like Petersburg and Sitka recently completed anode projects.
“I’ve talked through with the engineers and a lot of times, that’s what we do in Southeast Alaska,” he said. “When we’re building out new harbors, when they go in in phases like this it’s something that [we] can always come back and do in 10 to 15 years and still protect things.”
It’s been 13 years, so now it’s a serious Harbor Department priority. Miller said he and the Port Commission are jumping in on the process as quickly as possible – within the coming days.