SEARSPORT, Maine — Opponents of a major dredging project in Searsport harbor plan to come out in numbers Monday night during a public information meeting held in Bangor by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The two-part project would dig up nearly a million cubic yards of sediment in order to both maintain and greatly expand the federal navigation channel and turning basin in the harbor that leads to Mack Point, the state’s second-busiest industrial port. Maintaining the channel is important for navigation and safety purposes, proponents say, and expanding it would allow Searsport to be competitive in terms of attracting today’s bigger ships.
“I don’t see this project as being any different than upgrading and maintaining our state’s highways and bridges,” Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said last month.
But that’s not how opponents feel. If the $12 million project is completed as proposed, the Army Corps would dredge 929,000 cubic yards of material from the harbor, an amount equivalent to 280 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and dump it elsewhere in Penobscot Bay. The dredge site is located not too far southwest of the seven-square-mile area off Stockton Spring’s Fort Point, which the Maine Department of Marine Resources this week announced will be closed to lobster and crab harvesting because of mercury contamination.
Steve Miller, the executive director of the Islesboro Islands Trust, said Thursday that even though the water quality certification pre-application public information meeting is scheduled to take place in the evening, he anticipates that lots of concerned islanders will make it there.
Many opponents — including officials from 10 Penobscot Bay communities, 32 state lawmakers and hundreds of individuals — have asked the Army Corps to do more research into the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed expansion dredging in the harbor.
“We have lots of questions about the proposed dredging. We have lots of questions that we think an environmental impact statement would, and certainly should, answer,” Miller said, adding that the mercury contamination in the upper harbor is very unfortunate. “We just want the corps to be vigilant, to exercise care, and to make sure there aren’t further injuries to our natural resource industries, especially lobsters.”
He wondered why the Army Corps has indicated it would like to dredge the harbor to a depth of 40 feet, according to the agency’s draft feasibility report.
“Portland Harbor only dredges to 35 feet of depth. Nobody understands why Searsport needs to dredge to 40 feet of depth,” Miller said. “We fully appreciate the need for maintenance dredging … but what is proposed goes way beyond maintenance dredging.”
But Tim Dugan, the public affairs specialist for the New England District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said Wednesday that doing a full environmental impact statement generally takes years and costs millions of dollars.
“It’s just a huge undertaking. You’re talking about every single technical report you could think of,” he said.
There are five or more technical reports already included in the draft feasibility study, which is nearly 200 pages long, he said.
“It’s a wealth of information and analysis,” Dugan said, adding that people will have a further opportunity to comment on the water quality certification application after the Army Corps submits it to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
That state agency set up the public meeting’s time, location and place, choosing Bangor rather than Searsport as the site because it is a regional project, he said.
The existing federal navigation project in Searsport was authorized by the River
& Harbor Act of October 1962, with construction completed in 1964. It has not been touched since then. In 2000, Congress authorized the Army Corps to conduct a navigation improvement study of the harbor. Work on that study began in 2004.
According to Dugan, cargo ships have been getting bigger worldwide, and a lot of the harbors in New England are scrambling to accommodate their deeper drafts. At Mack Point in Searsport, a lot of cargo ships must either arrange to come in at high tide or unload portions of the goods they carry elsewhere to lighten their loads.
As proposed, the project also would widen the entrance channel from 500 feet to 650 feet and create a maneuvering area in Long Cove near the State Pier at Mack Point.
“It ends up being a money issue,” Dugan said, adding that of course it’s a person’s right to oppose the harbor expansion. “Some people want to develop and some people don’t. There are a lot of ports in New England that are trying to get federal funding right now.”
The public information meeting will be held 6-8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24, at the Cross Insurance Center at 515 Main Street in Bangor. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. For more information about the project, visit www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/ProjectsTopics/Searsport.aspx.