EASTPORT, Maine — The clearing and leveling of 8 acres at the Port of Eastport began this week, the first steps in a $6.5 million expansion of the country’s deepest and easternmost seaport.
“We are under way,” Chris Gardner, the Port Authority’s executive director, said Tuesday.
Carved by glaciers, the Port of Eastport in Broad Cove is the deepest natural seaport in the continental United States. At mean low water — the lowest level — the water is still 64 feet deep at the pier.
Despite a snowstorm that dumped a foot of snow on Washington County on Monday, Gardner said, T. Buck Construction of Newport was on site and working.
T. Buck won the site development contract with a $1.45 million bid last week, while Hershey Equipment Pennsylvania is the low bidder on a $4.36 million conveyor system and is expected to get the contract later this week.
The conveyer — a 900-foot, bidirectional system — will allow the port to import and export bulk commodities.
With the infusion of $4.5 million in state transportation bond money and another $2 million in federal stimulus funds, the diversification will secure the port’s future, Gardner said. That funding will cover the costs of the site development, bulk cargo conveyor system, a 5-acre outdoor storage area and a major warehouse.
“The possibilities are endless,” Gardner said. “Our market surveys show great potential for [wood] chips, pellets, aggregates and more, and sure enough, we already have new customers pending.”
Historically, the port’s largest customer has been Woodland Pulp LLC at Baileyville, formerly Domtar, which ships pulp primarily to Asia.
“We must diversify to survive,” Gardner said. “When Domtar closed [temporarily last year], it drove it home that we were overleveraged.”
Gardner said companies from all over the country and world are taking notice of the expansion. Recently, Eastport began shipping pregnant cows to Turkey — the only port on the East Coast licensed to do so, and the closest to Europe.“The cows are a prime example of taking commodities from the central U.S. and shipping internationally,” Gardner said. “Bulk commodities can be the same, right from our doorstep to the world.”
As vital as the conveyor system is, what would really open the door to international development in Maine, Gardner maintained, is the development of a rail system between Eastport and Calais to connect to an existing rail line.
“Then, instead of looking just at what Maine needs, we can look at what the whole world needs,” he said.
The port unsuccessfully applied in 2009 for $57 million in federal stimulus funds to pursue the rail service.
“That’s a lot of money,” Gardner admitted, adding, “but not when you see that $50 million was spent to rebuild the Bangor courthouse. Does this country want to invest in rebuilding a courthouse or in rebuilding a county?”
Further study has since determined that the rail system would cost closer to $25 million. An intermodal facility could be located in nearby Perry and freight trucked the last seven miles to the port.
“If we are able to secure these new businesses, we can double the port’s tonnage and secure the port’s future,” Gardner said.
The average annual amount of cargo that comes through Eastport is 380,000 tons.
Gardner said the expansion project should be finished by September 2011.