BANGOR, Maine — More than 150 people on both sides of the issue attended a meeting Monday night at the Cross Insurance Center to weigh in on a controversial plan to conduct a dredging project in Searsport harbor that aims to improve access for bigger ships.
The $12 million 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.
Proponents say maintaining the channel is important for navigation and safety purposes and expanding it will enable Searsport to compete for modern, bigger ships.
During the public question and comment part of the more than two-hour meeting, John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber’s leadership “is very jazzed about the idea that this port will become the taking off point for the resurgence in the forest products industry,” citing wood stove pellets as an example.
“It’s very important that this port remain competitive. The other piece of this is that it needs to function well with larger ships. … The shipping world has changed,” he said. “The double hulls and other technological innovations, they protect our environment but they do need a deeper channel.”
Another regional group supporting the project is the Action Committee of 50.
“We believe that the economic benefits of the planned dredging are significant and extend far into Maine’s interior,” Andrew Sturgeon, the group’s president, said in a letter cosigned by 140 business and community leaders. “Maine is the largest New England state by far and has three specialized seaports and two significant airports. Without that same infrastructure Maine would find itself cut off from important national and international markets and would experience continuing losses of employment, population and general economic viability.
“The success of the recent resumption of transatlantic shipping from Portland and the longstanding success of Bangor International Airport’s transatlantic flight activity are the clearest indications of the importance of such international ties,” he said.
Opponents, however, say they are concerned that the dredging could have an adverse effect on the state’s fishing and related industries. Some who oppose it also said the project made little economic sense, given how little ship traffic the port sees.
Many opponents — including officials from 10 Penobscot Bay communities, 32 state lawmakers and hundreds of individuals — have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to do more research into the environmental and economic effects of the proposed dredging in the harbor.
“I just want to say we’ve got some real serious trust issues,” Ron Huber of the Friends of Penobscot Bay said, alleging that state officials lied to residents while trying to get projects done in Searsport harbor in the 1980s and 1990s despite residents’ objections.
Monday’s public information meeting at the Cross Insurance Center by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drew an estimated 170 people, according to organizers. Attendees came from as far as Southwest Harbor, Bath, Islesboro and Owls Head as well as from communities closer to the project area, including Searsport, Winterport, Belfast and Stockton Springs.
If the $12 million project is completed as proposed, the Army Corps would dredge 929,000 cubic yards of material from the harbor and dump it elsewhere in Penobscot Bay. The dredge site is located southwest of a seven-square-mile area off Stockton Spring’s Fort Point that the Maine Department of Marine Resources this week announced will be closed to lobster and crab harvesting because of mercury contamination.
Army Corps of Engineers officials say that 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, many cargo ships must either arrange to come in at high tide or unload portions of the goods they carry elsewhere to lighten their loads. The project also seeks to 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.
Several of those who attended, including Elaine Tucker and her husband, Tony Kulik, who drove to the meeting from Belfast, thought the event should have been held closer to Searsport and that the public notice should have been published in the Republican Journal, a Belfast newspaper they said was widely read in the area closest to the project.
An Army Corps spokesman said the meeting was held in Bangor because it is a regional project.
The Belfast couple opposed the project.
“It’s paving paradise to put up a parking lot,” Tucker said. Kulik said the project ultimately would benefit mainly multinational corporations, including Irving Oil and Sprague Energy.
The existing federal navigation project in Searsport was authorized by the River & Harbor Act of October 1962, with construction completed in 1964. In 2000, Congress authorized the Army Corps to conduct a navigation improvement study of the harbor. Work on that study began in 2004.
Those who want to weigh in but were not able to make Mondays’ meeting can send questions or comments to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at email@example.com or State of Maine, Department of Environmental Protections, Bangor Regional Office, 106 Hogan Road, Suite 6, Bangor, ME 04401.
For information about the project, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website at www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/ProjectsTopics/Searsport.aspx or the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at www.maine.gov/dep/about/index.html.
BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.