Army Corps of Engineers nixes Sears Island mitigation plan

Posted Nov. 25, 2009, at 10:07 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rejected the state’s draft application to create an umbrella mitigation bank on Sears Island.

The corps announced its decision in a letter to the Department of Transportation sent earlier this month. The agency determined that the application was incomplete and suggested the DOT revise its proposal to meet federal guidelines.

“It merely slows the process and nothing prohibits them [DOT] from submitting the application again,” Army corps project manager Ruth Ladd said last week. “It doesn’t kill it because there is always the option to resubmit the application.”

The Maine Umbrella Mitigation Bank Instrument, or MUMBI, is the first of its kind to be proposed in New England. Mitigation banks have been established in other regions of the country for years, she said.

DOT spokesman Mark Latti said the agency submitted its draft proposal on Oct. 6 and received the rejection notice a month later. He said DOT planned to file a revised application shortly.

“We are reviewing the areas that are deemed incomplete and we will be resubmitting to the corps for their review within the next few weeks,” Latti said Wednesday.

Under the proposal, the DOT wants to use the 601 acres it has placed in a conservation easement on Sears Island as a mitigation bank. The state contends that having a MUMBI designation on the island would allow it to use that acreage to offset any wetlands disturbed during DOT activities such as road or port construction. The wetland bank would cover the entire state. The state has retained another 330 acres on the island for a potential cargo port.

Authority to create a wetland mitigation bank comes through the federal Clean Water Act and is administered by the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency. The corps has established an interagency review team, or IRT, to screen the state’s application.

“The corps had to look at it and share it with the IRT, and we determined there were a few things the needed to be addressed and we sent it back to them,” Ladd said of the draft application.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already on record as being opposed to the MUMBI proposal. The EPA determined in April that the plan failed to address aquatic resource restoration and would cause harm to the island’s long-term ecological integrity.

In the letter to Gates, the Army corps’ regulatory division determined that the document lacked a statement detailing the “legal responsibility” for mitigation and “default and closure” provisions as required by law.

Stephen Miller of Islesboro Islands Trust expressed surprise last week that the state’s application failed to meet the guidelines. Miller said that while he expected the DOT ultimately would succeed in gaining MUMBI approval, his group was concerned that the rules do not require the state to restore or enhance old wetlands that already have been disturbed.

“We have trouble with some of the details,” Miller said. “It’s not a bad concept; however, we do have concerns. This focuses on preservation credits rather than the rehab or creation of wetlands.”

Ladd said that even if the corps approved the MUMBI, the DOT would have to obtain a federal permit each time it wanted to use the island 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 earlier this year. “The umbrella sets up a framework for reporting and tracking. You can put a bunch of projects under an umbrella.”

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