In January 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began its search for a company that could successfully perform years’ worth of challenging marine work on the Chukchi Sea coastline in Northwest Alaska.
Eight months later, the Corps found Orion Marine Contractors Inc.
Headquartered in Houston, Texas, but experienced in marine work in Alaska, Orion Marine Contractors won the bid on a five-year project to reconstruct a deteriorating seawall on Cape Lisburne, a remote, long-range Air Force radar site about 40 miles northeast of Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea.
“There’s the radar site up there and a runway,” said Mark Leick, project manager for Orion Marine. “That’s all there is.”
Well, that’s until this spring, when his crew travels north to fire up the heavy machinery that’s been sitting idle all winter. Orion Marine mobilized on the site in July 2016, then shut down in October because of the region’s early onset of winter.
The $41 million project for the Air Force consists of replacing and reinforcing a 5,200-linear-foot seawall that serves as a buffer between the ocean and the Air Force’s mile-long runway at Cape Lisburne. Each year, violent storms contribute to the erosion of the seawall, which was originally built in 1952.
Due to the region’s extreme climate, the project is expected to last five construction seasons. Orion previously completed a similar seawall project in Unalakleet and a breakwater extension in Seward for the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are looking forward to working with the Air Force and Corps of Engineers to a successful completion of the Cape Lisburne project,” Leick said.
Bob Glascott shares that sentiment. He’s the project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. His primary job is to work with the Air Force and to make sure Orion Marine is on track to fulfill requirements in the contract.
“I’m sort of the messenger between those two sides,” Glascott said. “But at the end of the day, we are tasked with the construction of this project and the management of it on behalf of the Air Force.”
Decades ago, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Cape Lisburne was one of many radar surveillance sites for the Air Force. It shut down in the 1980s but was redesigned as a long-range radar site that is now operated by the Alaskan NORAD Region. The Alaskan NORAD, which stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command, operates at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
With no road access, the only way to reach the site is via aircraft or barge. Orion Marine barged its heavy equipment from Homer as well as from Dutch Harbor. Glascott tried twice to reach Cape Lisburne to check out the project he manages for the Army Corps of Engineers. Both of his flights, however, turned back because of inclement weather.
“That speaks to some of the logistics of getting there,” Glascott said. “There tends to be lots of weather and lots of low-ground fog, which limits the visibility. And given the location, being right on the water with a large mountain next to it, the minimums are pretty high in terms of visual landing.”
In other words, it’s no surprise for pilots to land in less-than-ideal conditions. To make matters worse, an errant rock or two from the deteriorating seawall could manage to skip its way onto the runway after a massive storm. Thus the reason why the Army Corps of Engineers and Orion Marine were hired to fix the problem.
“With less ice forming (in the fall), we tend to get bigger storm surges,” Glascott said. “There are some places in the existing wall, I believe, that things have shifted.”
Late fall storms tend to push material onto the runway, Glascott added, and when an aircraft lands, cobble-sized boulders on the runway are dangerous.
“The maintenance became a reoccurring event, so as a result, the hydraulics and hydrology (department of the corps) took a look, figured out a design and talked about it with the Air Force,” Glascott said. “It ultimately arrived at the project we have today.”
Due to water and frost erosion, as well as a significant storm in the summer of 2012, the existing rock reinforcement has been depleted over the past decade, said Anastasia Schmidt, director of public affairs at Alaskan NORAD Region. In 2012, options for repair began to be discussed and planning and programming for the seawall repair was initiated.
To repair the wall, Orion Marine will excavate 90,000 cubic yards of armor rock and 180,000 cubic yards of smaller rock. It will be mined at an existing quarry just 1 mile from the runway, Leick said. Orion Marine will use long-reach excavators for removing the existing armor rock and building the new seawall.
“Since we’ll be doing it from shore, you need a little extra reach,” Leick said. “It’s just got a longer arm and a heavier counterweight on it. They’re not super rare, but they’re also not your typical excavator.”
After winning the bid in July 2015, Orion Marine spent the remaining months of 2015 and spring of 2016 planning the project. This included procuring a 20-man camp, equipment purchases, work planning and sequencing, material and consumable purchases, and performing the initial quarry survey, Leick said.
“We mobilized on the site in July 2016 with the first of three barges,” he said.
Work completed on site included initial quarry development, rock production, satellite communications and camp setup. In 2017, Orion Marine will continue with rock production in the quarry and begin removing the existing seawall to construct the new seawall.
Leick hinted that it might not be easy dealing with Mother Nature.
“You are going to have to deal with waves and weather,” he said. “It’s not all that protected in some areas. So, as you’re building the armor wall, you have to deal with the waves eroding the work pads.”
Glascott looks forward to watching the seawall construction progress in a full construction season by Cape Lisburne standards, which starts around June and ends in mid-October.
“I don’t think they like to play beyond mid-October,” Glascott said. “The weather is really quick to turn. When it does, everything pretty much shuts down.
“That’s one of the challenges of working in the Far North, and that’s why this project will last approximately five years.”
Kevin Klott is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.