Concern over endangered birds stalls Wells Harbor dredging project; $3.5 million deadline looms

A piping plover.
Maine Audubon photo
A piping plover.
Posted Aug. 07, 2013, at 4:19 p.m.

WELLS, Maine — The piping plovers are holding up a long-awaited Wells Harbor dredge, threatening the federal funds the town has secured for the project.

The news came to light at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 6, when Selectman Bob Foley provided an update on the proposed dredge.

“I’m afraid the news is very disappointing,” Foley told the board.

According to Foley, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in July sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting a full environmental impact study before it will give its final approval for the dredge to be completed.

Foley said that a full environmental impact study would take at least six months to complete. According to Foley, in order to use the $3.5 million the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has set aside for the dredge, the work must be completed by April 1, 2014. He said the dredge will not be able to completed by that date if a full environmental impact study is required.

Mark McCullough of USFWS, who has been working closely with both the town of Wells and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Wednesday that in order for these types of federally funded projects to move forward, there must be a consultation done with USFWS to make sure that there are no possible adverse effects to any endangered species. McCullough said there are at least two endangered species that could be affected, the piping plover and the roseate tern, as well as the red knot shore bird, which is on the candidate list of potential endangered species.

McCullough said USFWS received a letter dated April 8 from the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers that says there should be no negative effects from the Wells Harbor dredge on any endangered species and requesting that USFWS agree and allow the project to move forward.

McCullough said USFWS responded in a letter dated June 28 requesting a more formal consultation as it had concerns that there may be adverse effects on one of the endangered species, the piping plover.

According to Foley, the town of Wells conducted a five-year monitoring program for piping plovers following the 2000 harbor dredge.

“The town spent $358,000 on the project,” he said, adding that the monitoring program revealed no negative effects on piping plovers.

McCullough said the issue comes down to a change in policy that occurred in guidelines that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gives to their offices regarding what baseline to use in determining adverse effects on endangered species. The guidelines were issued on June 11, according to McCullough, and USFWS was unaware of the change in the letter dated June 28 that was sent to the Corps.

McCullough said the change in guidelines “greatly narrows” how the U.S. Army Corps looks at the effects of their projects. He said USFWS is reviewing the change in these guidelines at their headquarters as well as consulting with lawyers. He also said that his department is fully aware of the logistical concerns in getting these consultations complete so the U.S. Army Corps can proceed with the dredging process.

“This is our highest priority,” McCullough said. “We in no way oppose the project, particularly because it puts sand back on the beach which will help the nesting of the piping plovers as well as the town of Wells.”

McCullough said he believes USFWS will complete its review soon and send letters approving the consultation in the next week or two.

The Wells Harbor dredge is a project the town has been working toward for several years and was anticipated to begin on Sept. 15. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced in February that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had set aside $3.5 million dollars in federal funds to complete the dredge. The funds are part of the Supplemental Appropriations Act, which was signed into law on Jan. 29 to provide relief to communities that sustained damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast in the fall of 2012.

Collins’ office has been working to find a solution and ensure that the dredge moves forward as planned this fall, according to Kathy Goodwin, a representative from Collins’ office.

Goodwin said she expects if USFWS gives the project its approval, the dredge will move forward this fall.

“I am confident that both parties have been working hard to resolve this issue,” Goodwin said.

Ed O’Donnell of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that the Corps would put out to bid for the project as soon as it receives the letter from USFWS. O’Donnell said it’s likely the project would be delayed until sometime in October. He said he was unsure whether the project would be able to be completed by the April 1, 2014 deadline.

“It depends on many factors,” he said, including the weather.

O’Donnell said much would depend upon the weather.

At the Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday, Foley noted that dredging had to stop last year in December on a different project because it got too dangerous.

McCullough said the dredging window is between Sept. 15 and April 1 because the piping plovers are not nesting in the harbor at that time.

If the town should lose the federal funds, Foley said the Board of Selectmen may have to consider a bond for the town to pay for the dredge on its own.

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