EASTPORT, Maine — Not too long ago, the port of Eastport exported only pulp — the fibrous material used to make paper — manufactured at Woodland Pulp LLC, formerly Domtar.
But today, as the port explodes with commercial activity and is in the midst of an $8 million expansion, that single commodity has been joined by cows, sheep, wood pellets, wood chips and other biomass exports.
Much of the expansion project, however, hinges on amendments to existing permits requested of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, according to Christopher Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. Gardner recently appealed to the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Regulatory and Fairness Reform for help in easing the amendment process.
Gardner explained that the port project already has a series of permits, but new discoveries during the construction process necessitated amending them. If approval of the amendments comes within three months, the new work will cost the port next to nothing. But if it takes longer, the port may face a half-million dollars in additional costs.
Key to the amendments is the construction of a new warehouse and a container yard, which involves filling in some low-lying areas.
Gardner said Friday that both the pulp segment of the port’s business, under the mill’s new ownership, and the cow export portion have grown rapidly since the DEP permits were originally filed in 2010.
“This growth is a good problem to have,” Gardner said, “but the port is only so big and the only place we can use would partially affect some wetlands. We need the DEP to turn this around in weeks, not months.”
Gardner said that if the DEP could approve the amendments quickly, the additional work could be part of the existing contract as the construction crews are already on site. If not, Gardner said, the crews would have to be remobilized and that could cost up to $500,000.
When the permits were first applied for, they were extensive and intensive, Gardner said, “but we had to go with what we knew” at the time.
Gardner said this amendment process could be the DEP’s opportunity to step up to the plate and recognize that business and expansion plans change and that the department needs to be adaptable.
He said the project’s engineers spoke to the DEP on Friday morning and requested some estimate of how long the permit amendments would take. No answer has been issued yet.
“This is an opportunity for DEP to both regulate and recognize that time frames matter,” Gardner said Friday afternoon.
Tommy Critchley, operations manager at the port, stood on Friday in the middle of the port’s construction zone, where the piece of land is being dropped by 26 feet. Heavy rock-crushing machinery stood idle and blasting caps were silent, since the workers had left for the weekend, but they had already removed 100,000 cubic yards of rock.
Critchley said that along with the expansion to include a new conveyor system for exports and imports, and a huge storage warehouse to accommodate the increased business Woodland LLC is bringing, the port is looking at fabricating the cow containers locally. This not only would save thousands of dollars in manufacturing costs, but keep that money local.
Those containers won’t just be going to Turkey — as the original shipments did — but are now also headed to Russia and throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, as construction continues, the rock that is being stockpiled in a new mountain on the entrance road to the port is not going to waste. Eastport City Manager Jon Southern said some of the material is going to be used for an emergency stabilization project on Sea Street.
“Since 1978, Sea Street has lost 26 feet,” Southern said. He said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has deemed the project an emergency repair.
“We will use about 20,000 cubic yards of the stone from the port,” Southern said. “This will stabilize the area and protect Quoddy Bay Lobster and Motel East.”
Before the construction began, the hill being razed at the port was of limited use, Southern said. “It wasn’t particularly scenic and it was made of ledge.” He said the aggregate also can be used for road repairs.
Gardner said that if the permit amendments are approved, some of the rock will be used as fill for the base of the new container yard and warehouse.
Southern said the port expansion, both physically and commercially, is part of a big puzzle that Eastport leaders have been putting together.
“For once, in Washington County, everything is coming together at the right time,” he said.