The Port of Tacoma commission Thursday will consider authorizing demolition of Pier 4 in a project that ultimately will equip the port to handle the new generation of monster-sized container ships.
The razing of Pier 4 on the west side of the Blair Waterway north of East 11th Street is the next step in creating a nearly-3000-foot-long pier that could berth two ultra-large containerships at once.
The port has already strengthened the adjacent Pier 3 and equipped it with wider gauge rails on which new larger container cranes can operate to load and unload the gigantic new ships.
The first group of those new super ships is now carrying cargo between Asia and Europe. In Europe, several ports spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build new terminals and piers to handle the ships.
The largest of those ships, the Maersk Triple E class of containerships, are the largest ships in the world. At more than 1,300 feet long, those ships are nearly 200 feet longer than U.S. aircraft carriers. The Triple-E ships are 194 feet wide and can transport some 18,000 20-foot-long shipping containers.
Maersk Line has contracted with a Korean shipyard for 20 of those ships and is reportedly shopping for 10 more ships that are even larger, 20,000 containers.
Ships of that size are too large to be easily handled at the port’s existing terminals farther up the Blair Waterway, thus the need to update Piers 3 and 4. The Triple E ships or their peers may not be calling soon in Puget Sound, but they will displace somewhat smaller ships from the Asia-Europe trade. Those ships could be redeployed to call at West Coast U.S. ports.
The port has already done preliminary planning and testing for the Pier 4 demolition. Environmental testing discovered elevated levels of tributyltin in the mud beneath the existing pier. Tributyltin is a chemical commonly added to ship bottom paint to discourage the growth of barnacles and plant life on the ships’ hulls.
The use of the chemical has been banned for several years, but it was used for decades in ship construction and repair. The port has extensively tested the area beneath the pier to define the areas where the chemical, called TBT for short, is concentrated. The dredge spoils from those areas will be disposed in a local landfill. The clean soil dredged in the project will be disposed of in the deep waters of Commencement Bay.
The dredging is necessary to handle the new ships, which draw 48 feet of water.
Port spokeswoman Tara Mattina said the port doesn’t know where the TBT originated, but the area was once used for ship maintainence and repair before the toxic effects of TBT were known. TBT in the bottom soils can kill marine organisms and migrate higher in the food chain.
The port will move activity now handled at Pier 4 to Pier 3 during the construction and demolition process. The demolition, whose total budget including planning and testing totals $19.3 million, is expected to be completed by this time next year.
Rebuilding the pier and equipping it for the larger ships is budgeted at $121 million. No timetable has been set for that project.
The ports of Tacoma and Seattle announced last fall they are forming an alliance to market and operate their shipping terminals jointly. Under that proposed alliance, the two ports would decide where best to build new facilities. The Port of Tacoma appears to be a step ahead of Seattle in moving to handle the ultra-large vessels with the rebuilding of piers 3 and 4.
The Port of Seattle recently mothballed one of its major terminals, Terminal 5, with the intention of rebuilding it to handle those new generation of ships. The Seattle port recently, however, signed a lease with Shell Oil Co. for temporary use of that terminal for staging for oil exploration and production activities offshore in Alaska.