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Yet again, welding woes sink Alaska ferry Tustumena's planned return

Pat Forgey
The Alaska state ferry Tustumena was built in 1964 and is capable of carrying 36 vehicles and 174 passengers. It is one of just two-ocean-going ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway fleet. Isaac Wedin / cc via flickr

The return of the ferry Tustumena, already repeatedly delayed, will now be delayed indefinitely, the Alaska Marine Highway System announced Friday. The Tustumena had been expected to return from extended overhaul in August, but the shipyard attempting the repairs has been struggling complete welds that will pass inspection.

"We are extremely dismayed that the Tustumena is not ready to return to service," said Pat Kemp, commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which oversees the ferry system.

The decision will leave the Southwest Alaska communities on Kodiak Island, the Kenai Peninsula and along the Aleutian Islands chain without ferry service for additional months.

Some relief for some communities will come when the ferry Kennicott, the other Alaska Marine Highway ocean-going ferry, becomes available. It will provide service to Kodiak, Unalaska, and those ports with docks capable of handling the larger vessel.

That relief will likely only be temporary, said Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow. The Kennicott is scheduled to undergo its own winter overhaul in a few months.

Kemp said the state's top concern is getting ferry service back, but it cannot compromise safety.

The Tustumena  has been in a months-long overhaul at Seward Ship's Drydock, owned by Jim Pruitt. Work done there on welds replacing hull plants was found to be inadequate by U.S. Coast Guard inspectors, Woodrow said.

The most recent delay, he said, came because repairs still aren't passing inspection.

"The repairs that the shipyard did that caused the last delay were inspected by the Coast Guard and still don't meet the Coast Guard's standards," Woodrow said.

"The shipyard has also used, in some areas, smaller plates, where the Coast Guard has requested that they use larger plates that would require fewer welds," he said.

Pruitt said the inspectors are requiring too high a standard, but Seward Ship's Drydock is doing its best to comply. "The Coast Guard is instructing us to do certain things. We're doing what they're telling us, we're documenting what we're doing. It's totally unnecessary," Pruitt said.

"They're telling us to scarf out these welds and re-weld them, and we're scarfing them out and re-welding them," he said.

The welds are passing standard tests, but because of the age of the metal the new plate has to be welded to, they're having difficulty meeting X-ray inspections, he said.

Pruitt said it was not the fault of his welders but due to the age of the ship and the difficulty of welding deteriorated old steel to the new plats  being installed.

Ferry representatives said that the repair work they were asking for could be done, and began a process of fining the shipyard $20,000 a day for failing to meet completion deadlines, but that's about all they can do to speed repairs, Woodrow said.

Until Friday's announcement, the Tustumena was scheduled to return to service Aug. 20. The old ferry has served Gulf of Alaska communities for 50 years, moving people and vehicles for residents, businesses and tourists. The fate of the Tustumena came up at the Kodiak City Council Thursday night, reported KMXT public radio.

City Councilman Rich Walker said the loss of service has been devastating to the community, and will only get worst with further delay. "A lot of construction projects are waiting for equipment to come over," he said. "Going into the school year, now the costs for travel are going to go sky high and we have to figure out a way to pay for it and get the kids where they need to go."

Communities such as Kodiak and others that rely on tourism will now go the entire summer without ferry service.

One tourist who wasn't able to get to Kodiak was state Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who had planned a now-canceled trip from Homer to Kodiak and then out the chain to Unalaska. "That was going to be a good way to see the whole (Alaska) Peninsula," he said.

The latest Tustumena difficulties highlights the need for a new ferry, he said. "It's 50-years old, it's time for a new vessel."

That's something that DOT already knows, and it's begun design work with a $10 million legislative appropriation that Seaton and other Southwest legislators helped secure. But Seaton and Alaska Marine Highway officials say the Tustumena will have to be continue to serve until a new vessel can come online.

"It's going to be five years or so, you just can't speed up construction of a new vessel like that," he said.

 Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com