Fall is a brisk season at the Ketchikan Shipyard. Workers are completing jobs and gearing up for winter, the busiest part of the ship-repair calendar.
At least, that's the way it was until this year. This fall, shipyard employment has plunged and the work order book for the months ahead is just about empty.
Why? The continuing quarrel between Alaska Marine Highway System and Alaska Ship and Drydock about the ferry Columbia job.
They're disputing why ASD, the Ketchikan-based company that operates the state-owned shipyard, delivered the Columbia 46 days later than required by the $10.5 million vessel improvement contract.
The Alaska Marine Highway System quickly laid the blame at ASD's door and said it would seek $4 million in damages. But the shipyard operator cites defective specifications and change orders from AMHS as the cause of the delay. ASD says the state owes about $3 million because of the extra work required to finish the project.
The specter of $4 million in damages has severely harmed ASD's ability to book new work. Without a resolution soon, the Ketchikan Shipyard is likely to become a non-operating facility with disastrous results for Ketchikan and the State of Alaska.
The good news is that the state and ASD have agreed to use a mediator to help resolve the issue. Both sides have agreed to the choice of a specific mediator, according to ASD Director of Shipyard Development Doug Ward and Alaska Assistant Attorney General Doug Gardner. The mediation meeting will be late this month in Seattle -- a time and place chosen to accommodate the mediator.
Time is the crucial factor now. Each day that passes without resolution means another lost opportunity for ASD to bid on available work. Each lost job sinks the shipyard deeper toward closure.
The sad thing is that it appears more and more like a sinking by design.
State DOT Southeast Regional Director Bob Doll recently hinted darkly that there are other shipyard operators. There certainly are, Mr. Doll, and they're watching how the state treats Alaska Ship and Drydock very closely.
If ASD folds, these other operators win extra business down south. But will they want to run the Ketchikan Shipyard and keep ship repair capacity in Alaska? Not very likely after seeing Alaska Marine Highway -- the now and future primary customer of the Ketchikan Shipyard -- malign the operator with an excellent record of quality work.
We hope Alaska Marine Highway System officials are approaching the mediation in good faith, with a genuine desire to resolve the issue quickly and fairly. If so, perhaps ASD has a chance to continue their good service for the State of Alaska and the broader maritime community.
If not, the Ketchikan Shipyard could go dark and stay dark for a long time to come.
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