The Skagway ore dock. (Emily Files)

The Skagway ore dock. (Emily Files)

The future of Skagway’s port has been in limbo for about a year and a half. Borough officials’ frustration over the situation rose to the surface at an assembly meeting Thursday. The assembly talked about the two most pressing waterfront issues: contamination cleanup and cruise ships.

For years, people in Skagway have been saying it: we need to build bigger docks to accommodate bigger cruise ships. Now, a cruise line organization is saying it too.

“The word ‘encourage’ to me was a nice way of saying ‘get it done,'” Assemblyman Spencer Morgan said, talking about a letter from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

CLIA’s North West & Canada President, Greg Wirtz, wrote that Skagway’s existing dock facilities will not be able to accommodate some ships that are planning port calls in 2019.

Wirtz urges the borough and its leaseholder at the port, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, to work together and ‘immediately take the necessary steps’ to renovate the ore dock. Wirtz specifies the ore dock based on options from port consultant Moffat & Nichol. The options include renovating the railroad dock or the ore dock.

“We’ve got to sit down with White Pass, discuss what needs to be done down there,” said Morgan. “If they come back with ‘we need a lease,’ we’ll know what their feelings are.”

That’s what happened several years ago, when the borough was working toward a port improvement plan called the Gateway Project. They needed access to areas of the waterfront White Pass leases until 2023. In return for access, White Pass wanted a 35-year lease extension. But the contract was thrown out in a public vote.

Moving on has been a challenge. All port renovations, and cleanup of long-standing contamination, is stalled. That contamination, in the ore basin, was also a topic of discussion at this meeting.

“You know, it’s still just as complicated as it’s ever been,” said port commission chair Tim Bourcy.

Bourcy spoke on two resolutions before the assembly. One formalizes the municipality’s support to clean up the ore contamination. It also says White Pass is responsible for the pollution, not the municipality.

The other resolution offers a sort of olive branch, supporting collaboration and saying the municipality would contribute financially to remediation.

But the assembly did not agree on that second, more cooperative resolution. Assemblyman Orion Hanson supported it.

“You know, it’s not just that we’re going to drop the hammer in 2023,” Hanson said. “We want to make progress now. And the second resolution, I think, says that. This isn’t just an iron fist we’re holding over your head. We’re saying we want a partnership and to work together to make this happen.”

But Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. said adopting one resolution saying the municipality didn’t cause the contamination and another offering to help pay to clean it up doesn’t make sense. He said, yes, the borough does have grant funds that could go toward dredging. But it would be jumping the gun to commit that money before a plan is in place. The municipality hopes to have a plan this summer, with the help of Moffatt & Nichol.

“Before we commit to putting funds to a remediation, we let Moffatt & Nichol finish their study and make a recommendation so that we have something to talk about,” Burnham said.

Hanson responded, saying it’s a ‘good gesture’ that can’t hurt.

“We’re in real jeopardy of losing the economy we have or at least losing market share to it,” Hanson said. “Do we make a deal? Or do we just stand there and play chicken forever?”

The motion offering collaboration and financial support failed, 3-2. Steve Burnham and Jay Burnham voted against it. A motion needs four affirmative votes to pass.

The other resolution, which formalizes the municipality’s stance on contamination cleanup, did pass unanimously. The assembly amended it to encourage remediation no later than June 2018. Although, Mayor Mark Schaefer said that kind of fast progress would be a ‘miracle.’