Wrangell’s newest harbor needs a pricey add-on to stop corrosion

Wrangell's Heritage Harbor
Pilings reflect in the water at Heritage Harbor in Wrangell. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

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.

Even inside a harbor, there are powerful ocean forces at work.

“Mother Nature is working against you the whole time,” says Harbormaster Steve Miller, standing on the embankment looking out over Heritage Harbor, about a mile south of town.

a Wrangell anode
An anode protects a piling at the Fish & Game Float (Courtesy Steve Miller)

“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 explains. “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.

a Wrangell rust patch
A rust patch in Heritage Harbor (Courtesy Steve Miller)

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 explains: “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 says.

Adding anodes to Heritage Harbor is no small feat. Each anode weighs more than an average NFL linebacker. Heritage will need more than 450 of them to be welded, underwater, onto pilings throughout the harbor. 

corroded steel in Wrangell
The rust is wiped away to show corroded steel underneath (Courtesy Steve Miller)

“There’s a lot there to do,” Miller says, looking out over the rows of harbor stalls. 

An engineering estimate puts the cost of the project at almost a million dollars ($988,000). 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 doing the work will be worth it – Miller says it could double the lifespan of harbor components. 

“These are 50- to 60-year lifespan floats and pilings,” Miller says. “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 says, “But when it came down to money, it was cut out.”

That’s pretty common, Miller adds. 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 explains: “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 says he and the Port Commission are jumping in on the process as quickly as possible – within the coming days. 

Wrangell’s Port Commission will discuss anode projects at Heritage Harbor and the Marine Service Center at its meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday. The meeting is open to the public and will take place in the Borough Assembly chambers at City Hall.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.

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