Sediment buildup between Portland piers a ‘slowly evolving crisis’

Posted Sept. 13, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 14, 2011, at 10:19 a.m.
A well-known painting by the late Ron Goyette depicts Portland’s Commercial Street in 1902.
Ron Goyette
A well-known painting by the late Ron Goyette depicts Portland’s Commercial Street in 1902.

PORTLAND, Maine — A well-known painting by the late Ron Goyette depicts Portland’s Commercial Street in 1902, with majestic schooners pulled right up to the road, their masts towering over the tall, brick waterfront buildings and their bowsprits stretching almost all the way across the street.

It’s one of Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne’s favorite paintings, but the environmental advocate, and anybody else who strolls along the same street today, sees something very different tied up there.

“Now, you just see dinghies in those same places,” he said.

The buildup of sediment between the 20 piers on the Portland waterfront — four owned by the city and 16 privately owned — has left the water too shallow near Commercial Street to accommodate anything the size of those old schooners.

A conundrum now vexes the city’s waterfront community: Should the city and private pier owners pay exorbitant amounts to dredge the material clogging the space between piers, or adapt to a reality in which, eventually, only smaller boats will be able to dock in Portland? Complicating matters is the fact that today’s pier owners, who are staring down dredging costs multiplied tenfold because the sediment is contaminated, are largely not guilty of polluting the muck.

“Between some of those piers, you can stand at low tide,” said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, which leases the city-owned International Marine Terminal. “So obviously you can’t berth vessels there if there’s no water. They lose their accessibility. It’s a slowly evolving crisis. It’s been something that’s been happening over a long period of time, but it will only get worse.”

The Maine Port Authority in 2009 applied for $10 million in federal grant money to build a contained aquatic disposal — or CAD — cell off the Eastern Promenade. The CAD would essentially consist of a massive underwater hole in which the contaminated material would be left to settle, then be covered over with clean material. However, federal grant money for the project was not awarded.

“I think it’s inherently expensive to dredge, and it’s that much more expensive in Portland because there’s a certain amount of contaminants in the [sediment],” said City Councilor John Anton, the council’s representative to the Waterfront Alliance, a group of Portland waterfront stakeholders, such as business owners and fishermen. “We need a plan. The private and public pier owners need to work collectively. It’s a tight financial environment. This issue’s been out there for a while. The biggest issue since Day 1 has been, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’”

According to the Port Authority’s grant application, as much as 200,000 cubic yards of material may need to be dug out from between the piers, filling up more than half the 350,000-cubic-yard capacity of the CAD the group hoped to build.

The federal shipping channel the piers reach out toward is the responsibility of the federal government, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains dredging of that path. The Army Corps most recently dredged the channel in 1998.

Dick Ingalls, former chairman of the Portland Dredge Committee and Portland Harbor Commission, still acts as a liaison between the port and Army Corps.

He said waterfront stakeholders had hoped to secure funding for the CAD in time for the Army Corps’ next slated channel dredging in 2012, so they could seek cost efficiencies in piggybacking on the already scheduled work.

“Now we have no idea what we can do,” Ingalls said Tuesday. “At this point, we have no connection with anybody to dredge between the piers.”

The responsibility to pay for the dredging work legally falls on the pier owners. That may be a tough pill to swallow. Disposing of relatively clean dredge spoils can cost between $10 and $12 per cubic yard, but when the material is found to be polluted, that cost skyrockets to about $100 per cubic yard.

In addition to the biological testing of the spoils, which Ingalls said cost about $150,000 per between-pier dredge location, the additional costs come from building the $10 million CAD with local money or turning to the potentially even more expensive solution of building a hazardous material dumping site upland somewhere.

The kicker is that today’s pier owners aren’t responsible for the mess they’re now obligated to clean up.

“Any contamination in the riverbed sediments area is likely from historic uses dating back over 100 years, at a time when industrial progress trumped environmental impact,” reported the Port Authority in its grant application. “Very little, if any, of the existing contaminated material in the sediments of Portland Harbor is the result of actions by the current waterfront owners.”

Payne said most of the contamination is in the form of petroleum byproducts, metals and pesticides, for example, mostly from runoff from the nearby city streets.

“If you think of a $30,000 dredge job, that could be seen as the cost of doing business,” said Payne. “At $300,000, that’s not in anybody’s business plan. They couldn’t make that money back in their lifetime.”

Without help in the form of state or federal money, it seems pier owners can choose to either go broke now by paying for a dredging project their books can’t accommodate, or to watch their business options erode over time.

“If you’re limited to being a dinghy dock, the financial payback isn’t going to be as good,” Henshaw said. “If you can attract larger vessels, you’d be in a better position to survive.”

The Port Authority’s grant application goes on to claim that Portland’s working waterfront, which includes nearly 3,700 jobs and generates more than $101 million in annual payroll, “will slowly diminish” without a way to dredge between the piers and wharves that’s affordable to the pier owners.

Ingalls said the city still has some time.

“We still have operating room on most of the dock sides of Portland Harbor, except for the very end,” he said, noting that there are only about eight fishing trawlers left competing for space in the port anyway.

In the meantime, Ingalls said, “We’ll do what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years or so. We’ll wait and we’ll hope.”

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