Sears Island port proposal fundamentally misguided

Posted Nov. 04, 2008, at 6:17 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:27 a.m.

A passing reference to wetlands mitigation banking was omitted from the Bangor Daily News’ coverage of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee meeting on Sears Island, “Sears Island compromise tabled” (BDN, Oct. 16). It is unfortunate that the reporter, Walter Griffin, failed to note Transportation Commissioner David Cole’s comment because mitigation banking is integral to the Sears Island joint-use plan: it would facilitate destruction of wetlands not only on and around the island but anywhere in the state where transportation projects result in damage to sensitive ecological areas.

Some relevant history: In August, the Maine Department of Transportation was given a green light from the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a federal Umbrella Mitigation Bank for Transportation in accordance with the new federal wetlands Mitigation Rule (33 CFR Sec. 332) — one of many environmental rollbacks from the Bush-Cheney administration. Any day now, according to the Army Corps, Maine DOT will file a proposal for the first deposit in the bank, which paves the way for construction of a container port on Sears Island, a project that would come under the UMBT now under review.

The mitigation rule is full of references to “streamlining” (read circumventing) the Clean Water Act, giving discretion to the District Engineer and Interagency Review Team to decide mitigation options, and outlining a blueprint for creating easements to be held by natural-resource agencies and land trusts — all of which enables the Maine DOT to secure permits it could not get in 1996 to establish a cargo port on Sears Island.

At that time the DOT port proposal was rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency because of the devastating destruction it would cause to marine ecosystems. Now, acting under the new mitigation rule, transportation officials intend (as stated in internal documents) that “600 acres of Sears Island [the part not needed for a port facility] become the foundation for a federal mitigation bank via execution of a conservation easement.” The enablers lined up to make this joint-use maneuver possible include Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Islesboro Island Trust, Friends of Sears Island and Maine Sierra Club. Their participation will make the project exempt from a critical public-oversight protection under the Clean Water Act known as a 4F review.

Investigations by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (www.peer.org) show clearly that the mitigation-banking shell game undermines land-protection efforts. Their monitoring of Army Corps mitigation projects reveals an abysmal record of compliance with federal laws to assure that there be no net loss of the shrinking base of wetlands remaining in the U.S.

Apart from environmental concerns, there are economic reasons against what is arguably a port to nowhere, as a deepening recession slows consumer spending. With the collapse of markets worldwide, state planners are called on as never before to develop an economic engine to address the crisis of global warming — new passenger-rail and sustainable-energy grids the first priority.

In the Oct. 16 article, Walter Griffin quotes several Transportation Committee members who suspect that the conservation partners on the Joint Use Planning Committee are negotiating in bad faith. And indeed, while agreeing on the record that a port is an “appropriate” use for Sears Island, compatible with their proposed education complex, they maintain that “the conservation agreement creates no conditions that enable development of a port.” A case can be made, however (and doubtless will be by armies of taxpayer-funded lawyers), that their escape clause — language in a consensus agreement that for “substantial” reasons they are free to object to a port — is subject to override by provisions of the UMBT. The conservation partners are dealing with a wily adversary.

I speak for myself and many other Sierra Club members who believe that the collusion of the club and their allies in this deal with Maine DOT to industrialize Sears Island is fundamentally misguided. The federal regulation that makes it possible should be targeted for repeal by conservation groups when the next Congress convenes in 2009. In Maine it’s up to us to contact members of the Transportation Committee (in office through 2008) and keep DOT’s blueprint for environmental destruction from disappearing under the radar. They meet on Nov. 18 to reconsider the joint-use plan, which was finished at an “emergency” JUPC session on Oct. 27. At that time we learned that a meeting planned for Oct. 29 to hear public input, an opportunity for media reporting, had been canceled. Opinions thus suppressed can be registered on line at: www.mpjen.org/petitions.

Demand that oversight of Sears Island be shifted from the Transportation Department to Natural Resources.

Jody Spear lives in Harborside.

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