BELFAST, Maine — The conference room at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast was standing-room only on Tuesday afternoon as more than 200 people came to a public information meeting about a controversial Searsport Harbor dredging project.
While the attendees listened to information presented by the Army Corps of Engineers about the reason for the dredging and where the dredged material will be dumped, there were plenty who remained deeply skeptical about the scope of the project and its necessity in the first place.
“I can’t understand why you can’t figure out by dumping all this material on top of lobster beds, you’re going to bury [the lobster industry],” Rocky Alley of Vinalhaven, the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union, told government officials at the meeting. “For you to destroy some of this industry by dumping material is the wrong thing to do.”
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 work would 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.
Army Corps of Engineers officials told meeting attendees that cargo ships have been getting bigger worldwide, and a lot of the harbors in New England are scrambling to accommodate the deeper drafts. At Mack Point in Searsport, many cargo ships must either arrange to come in at high tide or unload portions of its goods elsewhere to lighten the loads.
In addition to the work on the navigation channel, the project 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.
Tuesday’s meeting was the second held by the Army Corps, which scheduled it after hearing from many people that the original information session in Bangor in February was too far from Searsport and too inconvenient for many midcoast people to attend, particularly those living in the island communities. At the February meeting, some people spoke in favor of the dredging project, including the president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
At the Belfast session, voices in support of the dredging were not easy to find. Many in the room wore red shirts to show solidarity with lobstermen, and some even donned lobster hats, perhaps to show solidarity with the crustaceans.
“This meeting is a sham and a shame,” Will Neils of Appleton said to loud applause from others in the room, asking officials why they were not holding a public hearing. “Respect this bay and its people, or you will pay the consequences.”
Barbara Blumeris of the Army Corps of Engineers said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection may choose to hold public hearings.
“We demand it!” a woman in the audience called out.
Blumeris had told attendees earlier that the Army Corps of Engineers had done a feasibility study on the dredging project because Congress requested it. 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.
“The objective of this project is to decrease navigation inefficiencies for ships calling on the port at Mack Point,” Blumeris said. She added that the Army Corps was recommending the channel be enlarged to a depth of 40 feet for efficiency and safety purposes.
Steven Wolf of the Army Corps of Engineers gave the audience a history of maritime dredging in the Northeast. He said the agency’s preferred site to dispose of the material is located off Islesboro. He also noted that the mercury levels in the dredge site are below levels of concern.
That area is southwest of the portion of the upper Penobscot Bay, which was recently closed to lobster fishing because of mercury contamination.
But Wolf’s words did not appear to persuade people in the room, some of whom said they doubted whether the dredging would give a benefit to the region. One woman said she believed the project would “make Searsport a Hoboken,” referring to a New Jersey suburb of New York City.
Another said she believed companies would export fuel from Mack Point instead of importing it to Maine.
Patrick Arnold of the Maine Port Authority said that was simply not the case.
“You need to ask yourself one question: where does your fuel come from?” he asked.