EASTPORT, Maine — At Estes Head, where the port of Eastport is undertaking an expansion project, huge earth machines are blasting through a dozen feet of granite and earth to level the head.
The $7 million expansion project will allow the port to expand and grow, adding 12 acres of flat loading space, a new warehouse and a state-of-the-art conveyor system to load and unload ships. The expansion will build on the port’s recent milestone of handling more than 400,000 tons of cargo in a single year, its most productive year since its creation in 1977.
Even though T. Buck Construction Co. of Corinna has already moved tons of earth and rock, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held earlier this week, giving state dignitaries and local officials a chance to praise the project.
Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said the expansion of the port represented a true partnership between the state, the federal government and the Eastport Port Authority.
“At its heart, what we are really celebrating are jobs, opportunity, and a new way of thinking about using this incredible deep water resource at the port of Eastport in ways that will benefit not only this community, but also Washington County and the state of Maine,” Raye said.
He recalled when Domtar’s pulp mill at Baileyville — the port’s largest supplier — temporarily closed in May 2009.
“The shocking and devastating impact of that single event threatened the future of this port because of its dependence on Domtar as a customer,” he said. “We vowed to never again allow the port to be in that position. We knew we had to pursue other ways to utilize the port.”
Today, the mill has reopened under new, stable ownership.
“And with the tireless leadership of Port Director Chris Gardner, we’ve also seen new business come to the port, including the arrival of wind turbine blades for Maine’s growing renewable energy sector.”
Visiting the construction site last week, Gardner proudly showed off the massive work site. “What you see here — about 12 to 13 acres — will be lowered about 15 feet,” he said.
The environmental permit for the project is a foot thick, he said, and took $60,000 to $70,000 worth of engineering.
The “table” created by the earth-moving process will provide a base for 40,000 metric tons of wood chips that will be shipped overseas.
“It’s all part of the European biomass push,” Gardner explained. He said the port was also working with several different companies to export chips, wood pellets, stone and crushed rock.
In addition, he said, monthly shipments of pregnant cows from American farmers to European breeders continues without a hitch. Eastport is the only port on the Eastern Seaboard permitted to ship livestock to Europe.
“When the port was established, best estimates were that we would be lucky to do 50,000 tons a year,” Gardner said. “This record-breaking year certainly speaks to the potential of this port.”
The port employs about 60 people, Gardner said, not including tug crews, independent truckers and pilots. “We have a tremendous impact on the local economy,” he said.
“Job No. 1 is job creation and retention, and today certainly fits that theme, as Eastport takes another step toward becoming a world-class deep water port,” he said.