Fishing boats in the Haines small boat harbor. (Jillian Rogers)

The Portage Cove Harbor Expansion Project is slowly moving forward, despite an impasse of required permits. At a special meeting last week, the Port and Harbor Advisory Committee, along with the harbor master and interim manager, gave an update on the $20-million undertaking.

“This thing has drug its feet for so long, I’m concerned about it.”

That’s Don Turner, a member of the harbor committee. He isn’t alone in his feeling that the massive project has stalled out. And he’s not entirely wrong. But, there is progress happening.

So said harbor master Shawn Bell and interim borough manager Brad Ryan. In order for the project to continue several permits are required. Bell explains:

“The 401 is a state-required permit and that’s the environmental aspect of our project. We’re already had that approved and done, which is significant,” Bell said. “So, we naturally went into the 404 application and during the 404 application, that came back and said ‘you also need the 408.’”

Bell said the 408, which came as a surprise to the borough and the engineer firm, was applied for in mid-December. As far as the 404 permit goes, it’s in limbo until the 408 moves forward.

The 404 is a permit required in conjunction with the Clean Water Act and is necessary when dredged or fill material is discharged in water. The 408 permit is needed when a proposed development could potentially impact an existing Army Corps project, in this case the rubble mound.

But there’s good news in all this. Bell said that studies thought to be initially required as part of the permitting process, might not be needed at all.

“We don’t think we’re going to need any additional studies to be performed. Again, this is preliminary, they still need to meet as a team and go through things. But, good news overall.”

Until last week, Bell said the borough has been taking a “wait and see” approach to find out what the Corps actually requires for a 408. And now, it seems, they might not need much else.

Interim manager Ryan said there is a concern, however, from the Corps in regards to how the current rubble mound would tie into the planned wave barrier, and if driving support poles into the seafloor would disrupt the current wave protection.

“There’s going to be an extensive monitoring plan that they’re probably going to require, I think it’s going to monitor underwater vibration, on the rubble mound vibration and they’re going to write a caveat in there that if it collapses, we’re going to be financially responsible to fix it,” Ryan said.

Questions about the cost of a monitoring plan, and whether the borough can somehow insure against any damage to the existing structure were then raised by the committee. Ryan said those are questions they’ll ask of PND and, if necessary, legal counsel.

Despite that ‘good news’ of less mandatory studies that Bell spoke of, the Corps is still projecting April as the earliest that the 408 will go through, which Ryan called bothersome.

“We’ve been stressing to her that we’re under a grant deadline and if we can get pre-permit recommendations, we can still get the bid documents ready to put out before we get the permits in hand” Ryan said. “It’s not unusual to do that.”

The “her” in that statement is Julie Anderson, a project manager and the 408-permit contact with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ryan said that the harbor expansion project is at the top of the 408-permit heap, and that the borough is pushing hard to keep the Corps’ attention on it.

Bell responded to concerns about the July, 2017 deadline and whether it is a hard and fast date for completion. He said that deadline is a real concern. He added that an extension is possible, if needed, but only if a reasonable amount progress has been made.

“I’ve talked to PND several times on this subject and their past experiences with facing those deadlines and getting extensions and when should you apply for extensions,” said Bell. “They feel we’re definitely too early at this point.”

The next regular Port and Harbor Advisory Committee meeting is Jan. 28.