Why Sears Island mitigation bank wont’ work

Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 5:17 p.m.

Here are some pressing questions prompted by the Feb. 5 BDN story about creating a wetlands mitigation bank to enable construction of a cargo port on Sears Island.

Q: Why would a Sears Island port development, rejected in 1996 for the devastating damage it would cause to marine ecosystems, be pursued now?

A: Acting under a new federal rule (33 CFR, sec. 332), the Maine Department of Transportation proposes to “[make] 600 acres of Sears Island [the part not needed for a port facility] … the foundation for a federal mitigation bank via execution of a conservation easement” (quoted from internal DOT documents). This pay-to-pollute scheme would mean that wetlands could be sacrificed anywhere in the state for transportation projects, the damage offset simply by a conservation easement. Like so many bad laws pushed through by the Bush administration to undermine environmental protections such as the Clean Water Act, 33 CFR should be targeted for repeal.

Q: So where do mainstream environmental groups stand on the issue, especially those with members who have a development agenda for Sears Island?

A: Last July, when DOT issued its first mitigation-banking proposal to the Army Corps (mistakenly omitting mention of a specific site), all 10 who testified on the record — including representatives of Islesboro Islands Trust, Penobscot Bay Alliance and Sierra Club — urged that the proposal be denied.

Despite the substantive arguments advanced by these joint-use proponents and by others who are not calling for “compatibly managed transportation and conservation uses” (New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, National Marine Fisheries Service, Penobscot Bay Watch, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, and Conservation Law Foundation), DOT was given the green light to go ahead. The application was withdrawn when the Army Corps admitted that identification of a specific site was required — and withdrawn again after the Legislature’s Transportation Committee voted in November to reject the joint-use plan.

Q: What did Gov. John Baldacci say to Sen. Dennis Damon to force the Transportation Committee he chairs to reverse course and approve a joint-use plan premised on mitigation banking?

A: We don’t know because the governor instructed the joint-use planning committee to avoid discussion of mitigation banking. What we do know is that the joint-use plan, with its provision of a conservation easement, is a necessary condition for a port on Sears Island.

Q: How could preservation of 600 acres on the side of Sears Island protected by an easement mitigate for the destruction of wetlands on the other (330-acre) side, as stated in the BDN story?

A: It can’t. The “preservation” option — simply leaving an intact site alone — does not yield a net gain of wetland functions and values, as required by the Clean Water Act to protect ecosystems and water resources filtered through wetlands. And opportunities for restoration of degraded areas on the “protected” side are negligible. So DOT is seeking to bank mitigation credits for restoring damaged sites elsewhere in the state.

In the case of Sears Island the agency proposes to withdraw credits not from within the local watershed but from coastal ecoregions all the way from Portland to Eastport. Mitigation would be carried out at the discretion of the Army Corps district engineer and an interagency review team, without oversight by the public.

The size of the service area was the basis for one of the repeated criticisms disregarded by the Army Corps last summer, and another was DOT’s failure to demonstrate the need for a mitigation bank.

Q: “Why is a port needed on Sears Island?” is implicit in that question.

A: The findings of the Cornell Group, pro-industry consultants who projected the need for 43 percent more shipping capacity in the North Atlantic in 2007, are not supportable, especially now with the economy in free fall, consumers without money to spend, and with global climate disruption dictating new priorities for transportation planners — new passenger rail and sustainable-energy grids are the first priorities.

An informational meeting in Searsport at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 is not sufficient to evaluate the complexities of the DOT proposal for a mitigation bank. We have a right to a formal public hearing and to expect that the work of transportation officials be focused on essential infrastructure, not on devious mitigation tradeoffs for a Port to Nowhere that a world in deep recession cannot support.

Demands for a public hearing, especially from those who cannot attend an afternoon meeting on Feb. 23, should be addressed to the Army Corps. E-mail ruth.m.ladd@usace.army.mil or call 800 343-4789.

Jody Spear of Harborside is a member

of Maine Sierra Club’s Conservation Committee.

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