Sears Island proposal creates mitigation bank

Posted Feb. 04, 2009, at 10:54 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — The Army Corps of Engineers will conduct a public meeting on the state’s proposal to create an umbrella mitigation bank with Sears Island as its initial site.

The meeting will take place at 2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, in Union Hall at the Searsport Town Office.

Army Corps project manager Ruth Ladd described an umbrella mitigation bank as “like a bucket, and the first deposit is Sears Island.”

Ladd said the Department of Transportation wants to deposit the 601 island acres it has placed in a conservation easement into the mitigation bank. If that occurs, the DOT will then be able to develop the remaining 330 acres into a cargo port. Disruption of wetlands or marine environment during construction of a port could be mitigated by the acres in the mitigation bank, she said.

Ladd said mitigation banks were relatively new to New England but have been in use in much of the country for some time. She said the DOT’s proposed umbrella would cover the entire state and Sears Island would be just one square on a checkerboard. She said that even if the Corps approved the mitigation bank, the DOT would have to apply for permission to use the site for mitigation.

“Just because there is a bank there’s no guarantee they will be given a permit. The idea is to have mitigation that makes the most ecological sense,” Ladd said Wednesday when reached at her Massachusetts office. “The umbrella sets up a framework for reporting and tracking. You can put a bunch of projects under an umbrella.”

This is the fourth time the DOT has proposed an umbrella mitigation bank, she said. The others were withdrawn pending the approval of the Sears Island Joint Use Planning Agreement between the state and environmental interests. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee approved Gov. John Baldacci’s executive order implementing the joint use agreement last month.

Although members of some environment groups supported the joint use agreement on Sears Island, others have not. Ron Huber of Penobscot Bay Watch described the umbrella proposal as “political not ecological.” Huber said a cargo port on Sears Island would cause irrevocable damage to critical fisheries and marine habitat.

“I think the DOT, for a long time, has been looking for ways to mitigate ecologically disastrous activities,” Huber said Wednesday. “We are opposed to any port on the island.”

Harpswell resident Joyce Spear, a member of Sierra Club’s conservation committee, said she was “one of many people” who believed the joint use plan was a “very bad mistake.” Spear said the DOT was denied port construction permits a decade ago on environmental grounds and that the mitigation bank represented an attempt by the DOT to circumvent those earlier findings. Putting Sears Island into a mitigation bank would make port development exempt from public-oversight protections of the Clean Water Act, she claimed.

“The whole reason for getting this going is so the DOT can get the port permits that it couldn’t get in 1996,” Spear said Wednesday. “They could not possibly mitigate all the damage a port would do to the marine ecosystem. … The public will have very little input once the mitigation bank is in place. It’s a great forum for lawyers because that’s where it’s going to be fought out.”

The Corps of Engineers is soliciting comments from the public, federal, state and local agencies and officials, Indian tribes and other interested parties in order to consider and evaluate the impacts of the proposed activity. Any comments received will be considered by the Corps to determine whether to allow the DOT to proceed with a draft banking instrument.

Public comments for proposal No. NAE-2008-1703 should be forwarded no later than March 5 to Ladd at the New England District Regulatory Division, 696 Virginia Road, Concord, Mass., 01742. Ladd may be reached by phone at 800-343-4789.

The entire prospectus, “Maine Department of Transportation Federal Umbrella Wetland Mitigation Prospectus, January 9, 2009” is attached to the Corps public notices and is available online at nae.usace.army.mil. Select Regulatory/Permitting and then weekly public notices.

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