Navy plans for Cutler station power cable raise concerns about power plant jobs, scallop fishery

Posted Aug. 29, 2013, at 11:07 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 29, 2013, at 7:23 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — The Navy’s plan to put a power cable under Machias Bay has generated concern among scallop fisherman, and has some questioning the number of jobs that may be eliminated when the communications station in Cutler connects to the power grid.

Navy officials held an event Wednesday night to provide information about the proposed project, answer questions and solicit comments.

The Naval communications station, which began operating in 1961 and provides coded communications to the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, is powered by its own diesel generating power plant. Now the Navy wants to connect the property to the power grid via a cable that would be buried under Machias Bay and routed to the Bangor Hydro Electric substation in the village of Bucks Harbor below Machiasport. As proposed, the $14 million project would require only a few weeks to bury the cable 3 to 5 feet below the ocean floor and would be completed by the summer of 2015.

About 35 people attended Wednesday’s open house, according to Tom Kreidel, a spokesman for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Norfolk, Va., who attended the event. Some of those people expressed support for the proposed project, others had questions about the cable route, and others were concerned about the jobs that may be eliminated, he said.

“Comments … have run the gamut,” said Kreidel.

Jobs and the potential impact on scallop fishing also were on the minds of local officials who met with Navy personnel on Tuesday, according to Machinas Town Manager Chris Loughlin, who attended the briefing. Navy officials met with representatives of five towns in the immediate area — Machias, Machiasport, East Machias Cutler, and Whiting. The Navy employees who work in the diesel generating plant are well-paid, noted Loughlin, and those jobs are important to a rural, poor community like Washington County.

The communications station has about 65 civilian employees, and 17 of them work in the diesel generating plant. The Navy will not know how many of those jobs would be eliminated until the completion of a study that would be performed after the project is completed and the facility is powered by Bangor Hydro. Since the diesel generators would only be used a backup source of power, however, it seems clear that a number of those jobs would go by the wayside.

The potential impact on the bay’s valuable scallop fishery remains unclear. That would depend largely on how the cable is designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on marine charts. Depending on the designation, the fishermen would be limited from dragging their scallop gear along the bottom in the vicinity of the cable.

That designation generally is the prerogative of NOAA, said Catherine Creese, director of the Navy’s naval sea floor cable protection office in Washington, D.C., who attended the open house. The Navy, however, can make a recommendation, she said.

“It’s not our intention,” said Creese, to ask for a designation that would limit scallop fishing. If the cable is buried successfully to adequate depth, a less obtrusive designation would suffice, she said.

“We want to protect our cable,” said Kreidel. “We also want to be good neighbors.”

The project is still in the design phase, which is scheduled to be completed this winter. The Navy also is in the process of applying for various federal and state permits in conjunction with the project. Funding is not final, either, and currently is in the budget pending before Congress.

The transmitting station is located on a peninsula of nearly 3,000 acres near the village of Cutler. Although the Navy removed its military personnel from the communications station in 2000-01, the Cutler facility remains critical to its mission, noted Cmdr. Jody Grady, who supervises its operations from Norfolk Naval Base. Although satellites now enable communications with submarines, only the very low frequency radio transmissions from Cutler can penetrate the water, allowing communications with the vessels while they remain submerged and hidden. There remains an “incredible” strategic need for the capability provided by the Cutler station, said Grady, who attended the open house.

The Navy considered two other routes for connecting its communications station to the power grid. One was via transmission wires over land to another substation in Machias, and the other was connecting to it via a cable buried under the ocean floor up to the head of the bay and along the Machias River. Those options were ruled out, in part, because the routes were considerably longer.

“It’s a big concern to the fisherman,” Michael Murphy II, a scallop fisherman and chairman of the Machiasport Board of Selectmen, said Wednesday of the Navy’s plans. There are about two dozen scallop fishing boats based in the Machiasport area, he said.

The cable would straddle two scallop management areas in Machias Bay, explained Trisha De Graaf, DMR’s resource management coordinator for scallops.

“Essentially, when the cable goes in, part of it will be in an open area and part of it will be in a closed area in any given year,” she said.

A 2011 DMR survey estimated Machias Bay had 80,000 pounds of harvestable scallops, according to De Graaf.

The project will provide a number of benefits, according to the Navy. It will greatly reduce air emissions from the diesel power plant and save $3.9 million annually in fuel costs, for example.

The project is expected to pay itself in a little more than six years, according to the Navy.

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