The U.S. government is looking to revamp the wharf at its Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach so it can handle more ships as military activity in the Pacific increases along with the geopolitical concerns involving the Persian Gulf, China and North Korea.
The current wharf, which sees 35 to 50 ships a year, can service only one medium-size ship at a time and can't load large vessels because the turning basin is too small to accommodate them. Also, the structure is not compliant with modern earthquake codes, said Gregg Smith, public affairs officer for the weapons station.
The Navy says a new 1,100-by-125-foot ammunition pier in Anaheim Bay could accommodate 840-foot amphibious assault ships at a construction cost of $100 million to $125 million.
The current wharf, which was built in 1944 and is used to transfer shipments of ammunition like missiles, torpedoes and gun rounds for Navy and Marine Corps forces, hasn't been updated since 1953, during the Korean War, said Smith.
"Since that time, they've just done minor projects on the wharf, but that's about it," he said. "Our ammunition wharf is now past its design life.... This has been an issue that the Navy has been working on for years, and it's just one of those things where it eventually just came to the top of the line where there was funding available to start the process."
It's not immediately clear what the effect would be on Orange County, though the Navy said it will conduct an environmental assessment over the next year to see if the proposed project would add to air pollution and beach erosion or bring noise and other disruptions to surrounding neighborhoods.
Acknowledging the nearby Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, home to endangered species, Smith said, "Whenever we have a project on base, that's always a concern to make sure they aren't impacted by Navy projects."
A public meeting will be held April 7 in Seal Beach to give residents of the city and nearby Huntington Harbour a chance to express concerns, question experts, help identify environmental issues and look at three plan options. The meeting will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. in the senior center at the Mary Wilson branch library, 707 Electric Ave. in Seal Beach.
The Navy would not make a decision on how or whether to move forward until late 2017 or early 2018, Smith said.
Safety concerns regarding small-boat traffic from Huntington Harbour into Anaheim Bay have been raised because the civilian boats currently have no path other than sailing close to the station.
If a new pier is built, the Navy would look into creating a separate route for small-boat traffic, Smith said, adding that construction would also be phased in so that the harbor is always open.
The station has at times had to shut down to boats from Huntington Harbour, leaving them with no means to the ocean. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Navy refused to allow civilian boats through Anaheim Bay for three weeks, and then they had to be escorted for several months after that.
"We're their only access point to the ocean, so when it's shut down, it's shut down," Smith said. "[This update] would be a significant benefit to the boating community in Huntington Harbour."
Since 1944, the base began providing weapons and munitions to the ships of the Pacific Fleet. The station is 5,200 acres, including the wharf, and consists of 230 buildings and 128 ammunition storage bunkers.
On average, $1.8 billion worth of weapons are stored at the site, Smith said.
It employs 480 civilians — most of the people who work with munitions are civilians, Smith said — and 160 members of the military are based there.
"It used to be that there were other weapons stations besides Seal Beach ... but they were closed during an earlier round of base closures," Smith said. "So we're now the primary weapons station for all the Pacific fleet ships based down in San Diego, which is a majority of the Pacific fleet."
The next closest location for the ships is in Washington state near the Canadian border, about a 2,400-mile round trip for ships coming from San Diego.
And the Navy anticipates even more traffic in the Pacific in the coming years, Smith said, as tensions continue in Asia and the Mideast.
These complexities will mean more ships based in San Diego, and the Seal Beach station will therefore "see more business in the years ahead," Smith said.
"Traditionally, the Navy has had about 60% of its forces in the Atlantic and 40% of its forces in the Pacific," he said. "Now we're doing this thing where we're rebalancing toward the Pacific, and we're going to flip that ratio around."