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By Gaynor-Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 7) - Saipan's commercial seaport remains closed to large ships because of lingering safety concerns, Tony B. Cabrera, the Commonwealth Ports Authority's Saipan seaport manager, said yesterday.

Cabrera said since about November, the seaport was placed off limits to ships whose hulls reach 30 feet or deeper from sea level. He said the precaution remains in place after it was discovered that some areas in the Saipan harbor are less than 40 feet deep even after a multimillion-dollar seabed dredging project was completed in 1999.

The restriction on larger ships, which recently prompted a military ship to reconsider visiting Saipan, will continue until the depth problem is corrected, Cabrera said.

"Any ship that has a draft of 30 feet or greater ... is not allowed to enter the harbor," Cabrera said, and added that precaution will remain until what he called the depth "deficiency" is corrected.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands' port agency will make sure the depth issue will be resolved, he said.

But Cabrera added he could not yet discuss the details, such as specific schedules for correcting the problem, and whether it will involve Samsung, the South Korean contractor that dredged the Saipan harbor.

Cabrera did say that the seabed dredging that was completed in 1999 was supposed to have deepened the Saipan harbor's waters to a uniform depth of 40 feet. It turned out certain areas in the harbor are not that deep, he said.

Excavation of the Saipan harbor's waters was part of a $46-million port expansion project that culminated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 9, 1999, according to a Commonwealth Ports Authority Web site.

Areas in the harbor that are in ships' paths, including a channel, have been widened and deepened to a uniform 40 feet below sea level in order to comfortably welcome medium- to deep-draft vessels into port, the port agency has stated.

Cabrera said the restriction on larger ships has not affected most vessels that bring goods to and from Saipan because commercial ships that make regular Saipan stops don't exceed the safety threshold.

"We do not have any problem with most of the ships coming in," he said. "Commercially speaking, there has been no interruption."

But Cabrera said one military ship that had planned a Saipan visit recently has changed plans as a safety precaution.

Navy spokeswoman Lt. Thurraya Kent, when asked for comment yesterday afternoon, said she could not immediately verify whether the Saipan harbor depth issues have affected or will affect Navy plans to send ships to Saipan.

Cabrera said Saipan's harbor can accommodate small- to medium-sized military ships.

On Aug. 27, 2001, the submarine USS Greeneville was entering the Saipan port in extremely rough seas when the ship grounded, Navy officials have reported. The cost of the Greeneville's repairs, which were done on Guam, was $120,000, Pacific Daily News files stated.

The Navy's Guam spokeswoman also was trying to verify as of press time whether the Saipan harbor's depth problems were a factor in the Greeneville's Saipan grounding in 2001.

January 7, 2004

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