Courts must take action for Sears Island’s well-being

Posted May 13, 2009, at 6:14 p.m.

On Jan. 22, the Maine Department of Transportation signed a conservation easement that split Sears Island. Under this easement, two-thirds of the island will be left in its natural condition; the rest, including the fertile shoals off the island’s western shore, will be used for a $200 million cargo-container port.

Because of the severe damage a cargo port would do to irreplaceable marine fish and shellfish habitat around Sears Island, Maine DOT needs to mitigate this damage by protecting and restoring other aquatic habitat in the state. Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s protestations to the contrary, DOT records obtained through Maine’s Freedom of Access law reveal the state’s sole purpose for giving the trust a perpetual conservation easement on the east side of Sears Island on Jan. 22 was to allow Maine DOT to offer the rest of the island to the global container shipping industry.

Happily, DOT’s rush for a port runs afoul of Maine’s Sensible Transportation Policy Act, or STPA, approved by Maine voters by referendum in 1991. This law requires Maine DOT to examine alternatives whenever significant transportation projects would have a serious impact on the environment and existing Maine communi-ties. As envisioned, a $200 million Sears Island cargo port would be the single most expensive transportation project in Maine’s history, would destroy much of the largest unprotected natural coastal island in New England and degrade the rest, and destroy irreplaceable brackish water fish nursery and diadromous fish staging areas at the mouth of Penobscot River.

In February, we three residents filed lawsuits in Maine’s courts to force the Maine DOT to obey the Sensible Transportation Policy Act at Sears Island. Our lawsuits state that the Maine DOT must conduct a full and public analysis to determine if a port at Sears Island is even necessary, and whether other, underused existing port facilities at Eastport and Portland are better suited for the task. Is it worth the harm to Penobscot Bay’s fisheries, air quality and to a unique part of Maine’s scenic beauty? We also ask the court to decide whether the Legislature’s Transportation Committee under Sen. Dennis Damon has gotten a bit too big for its constitutional britches.

Maine DOT’s response to our lawsuits is disturbingly contradictory. First, DOT says that members of the public, who own Sears Island, have no legal right even to ask the court to make sure DOT obeys the Sensible Transportation Policy Act. Next, they say the act applies only to highways, which it does not. Last, they say the DOT has no plans to build a cargo port at Sears Island. This last claim is truly laughable; as DOT was writing its response to our lawsuit, it had just given $100,000 in public funds to hire a consultant to find a developer for the port. DOT Commissioner David Cole is now touting his container port plan for Sears Island in industry trade magazines. No plans?

While DOT’s hired attorneys blow smoke at no-nonsense Superior Court Justices Jeffrey L. Hjelm and Joseph M. Jabar, the agency itself races full throttle to rush a candidate builder into action. Competing plans have been submitted on how most profitably to clear, blast, flatten and pave most of Sears Island’s natural western side, including scouring away Sears Island’s western shoal to make room for megaships. The consultants must figure out how to make the chronic air pollution a container port would bring, into a legally acceptable insult to the upper bay air shed.

In fact, the whole panoply of effects that a Sears Island port would have on fishermen, windjammers and other sailors, resort operators, coastal town people — and natural bay users, the fish and shellfish — remains largely below the public radar screen. How? The Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club led a handful of astroturf bay groups into a three-year alliance with DOT and the shipping industry against the environment of the Penobscot Bay. Their weak defense, that they “weren’t tasked by the governor” to consider the consequences of their consenting with DOT in favor of degrading Penobscot Bay’s fisheries and environment, runs entirely counter to their organization’s mission statement and to history. The club’s Maine leadership has in a decade gone from environmental watchdog to political lapdog.

We are asking Maine’s judiciary to make the executive and legislative branches of government follow state law and the Maine Constitution, when it comes to the well-being of Sears Island, the ecological linchpin connecting Penobscot Bay and river.

Let us never be forced to say: “At dawn, we slept” while the ecology and economy of Maine’s most important estuary was hammered into oblivion.

Ron Huber of Rockland is executive director of Penobscot Bay Watch. Harlan McLaughlin of Searsport is president of Fair Play for Sears Island. Douglas Watts of Augusta is a longtime advocate for the restoration of the Penobscot River and its sea-run fish.

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