KETCHIKAN, Alaska, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was supposed to be the Alaskan port town's biggest tourist season yet.
Ketchikan was expecting more than a million visitors this summer, many of them arriving at a newly built dock that juts out into the frigid waters of Ward Cove, the site of the town's old pulp mill.
Then the novel coronavirus hit, triggering a global shutdown of travel, tourism and, specifically, cruise ships, which became notorious as mass incubators and carriers of the disease.
With a slew of local businesses on the brink of collapse, many in the small town are relying on the new port to bring in a much-needed injection of tourist dollars.
John Binkley, one of the principal owners of the port project, calls the town's tourism collapse due to the pandemic "unprecedented".
"We've operated our family tourism business for 70 years, and never missed a trip," said Binkley, whose family runs a five-generation-old riverboat business. "But this virus is going to stop it."
But the Ward Cove project, a joint venture with Norwegian Cruise Line, also faces pushback from environmentalists and some locals, who say it will strain overtaxed infrastructure and threaten the cove's marine life.
"To say we are concerned about this proposed development is an understatement," author Ray Troll, who runs a popular store and gallery downtown, wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), the agency responsible for approving the project.
"We are shocked," he said in the letter last year, pointing to the threat of pollution from the project and the potential impact "that a quarter MILLION people will have on our already crowded road system".
Even after lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pushed Norwegian Cruise Line to near-collapse, the port - now called The Mill at Ward Cove - is due to open soon.
All of the necessary building materials had been on hand at the site "before the world shut down", Norwegian Cruise Line executive vice president Howard Sherman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Alaska's cruise industry started expanding in the 1990s and by 2017 was pumping $202 million into Ketchikan's economy every summer — more than 90% of which came from tourist spending, according to the town's visitor's bureau.
On any day in the high season, Ketchikan's population of about 8,000 approximately doubles as thousands of tourists disembark onto the downtown boardwalk lined with cannabis shops and art galleries.
That creates a bottleneck that can be bad for business, Binkley said.
To solve that problem, he and two business partners signed a deal in June 2019 with Norwegian Cruise Line to transform an old, abandoned pulp mill about eight miles north of Ketchikan's downtown into a cruise ship dock.
The aim was to turn it into a dining, tourism and entertainment hub capable of berthing two Post-Panamax cruise ships, which are among the largest in the world, Binkley said.
"This project is a metaphor," he said, noting the forest near Ward Cove that was once used as a source of pulp for the mill will now play host to paid tourist excursions.
"That mill created the economy, but now we're repurposing it into something that will still use the forest, just in a different way."
Many Ketchikan residents worry the project could resurrect a less appealing relic of Alaska's industrial history: toxins that lie buried beneath the seafloor.
Over the four decades of its operations, the mill at Ward Cove, which was run by the now-defunct Ketchikan Pulp Company (KPC), chewed through more than 500 tons of old-growth trees a day, according to historical records.
In that time, thousands of logs rolled off the tug boats that carried them to the mill, sank to the seafloor and decayed.
According to reports by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the decomposing logs produced toxins that killed off the benthic organisms that serve as the foundations of the food chain and the marine creatures that live off of them.
After the pulp company closed, the EPA covered the floor of Ward Cove with a thin layer of sand - known as a sand cap - to trap the toxins and allow the underwater community to return.
When the company behind the port project, the Ward Cove Group, applied to the ACE for a permit, the EPA expressed concerns that the force of the cruise ship thrusters would scour sand from the bottom of the cove, undoing the cleanup effort.
The final permit, issued in January this year, makes the Ward Cove Group responsible for maintaining and fixing the sand cap, and obligates the company to work with the EPA during construction, but only briefly mentions the concerns about the thrusters.
"With the continuous scouring from these thrusters, how is the benthic layer going to recover from its previous damage?" asked Sally Schlichting, a policy analyst at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a grassroots non-profit.
Binkley said concerns about environmental damage are unfounded because, for example, ships enter the berth with their thrusters projected horizontally over 100 feet of water, which should be too high to disturb the sand cap.
"We don't know exactly what's going to happen, but we feel confident that we're not going to have any major disruption."
In letters to the Army Corps of Engineers seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation some Ketchikan business owners wrote to offer their blessing to the new port.
"We are excited to see this project moving forward and give (it) our full support," one hotel business manager wrote.
But many residents expressed a variety of concerns, including fears that the waste under the sand cap could escape and spread into commercial fishing sites.
One commercial diver, who harvests sea cucumbers and giant clams, wrote that he had already seen underwater spots in other coves where pollution had caused marine life to die or fail to thrive.
"(I) fear that the release of pollution in Ward Cove will affect local fishing, crab, shrimp, and salmon," the diver said.
With Canada banning cruise ships for the season, cutting off a vital route for northbound Alaskan cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines cancelled their 2020 season, and the first ships are not expected at the Ward Cove dock until April next year.
This has been a relief, Binkley said. One of the massive boring drills has cracked, putting the project on hold while they wait for replacement, he added.
The cancellation of cruise season may prove devastating to Ketchikan's economy.
Three-quarters of the 75 local business owners surveyed by the town's Visitors Bureau said they will not survive until next year without cruise tourists.
But some in the area say the hiatus might be for the best, despite the hardship.
"Rural communities are not that well prepared to deal with (COVID-19), and buying a little more time is prudent," said Stephanie Jerriss, who runs a small guide outfit on nearby Prince of Wales Island.
"I just don't think it's wise to encourage people to be traveling so much yet. It might be too much, too soon."