The Islesboro Island Trust, in its latest attempt to stall Searsport’s harbor deepening project, commissioned Dawson & Associates, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, to review the project.
To no one’s surprise, the Dawson report echoes previously held views of the trust and recommends a “nonstructural” solution that would limit the channel depth to 35 feet rather than the 40 feet that would bring the port in compliance with modern safety standards. It suggests vessels requiring greater clearance wait for high tide, but impacts on port operations or transport costs weren’t considered. The trust described the report as a “game changer.”
The Islesboro Island Trust objects to the removal of five feet of ancient clay because it fears disposal of the same material might adversely affect water quality and local commercial fishing. It’s noteworthy that the Dawson report takes no issue with the findings or methodology of the Army Corps of Engineers, which recommends the 40-foot depth. The Army Corps has extensive experience with similar projects up and down the Atlantic coast and has explained during several public hearings that the packed clay found in Searsport’s channel won’t easily disperse due to its density and underwater physics.
The Dawson report repeats the unsubstantiated claim that mercury contamination observed in the Penobscot River may have migrated into Searsport’s harbor. The Army Corps, however, has found no evidence of this, and the presence of a number of geographical barriers along with prevailing local currents would make such migration highly improbable. Even if any mercury did find its way into Searsport, it would be present in the very top layer of soil to be removed, not in the additional five feet of clay.
The trust also claims current shipping doesn’t warrant a 40-foot depth, as recommended by the Army Corps, and flatly assumes shipping activities at Searsport won’t return to previous levels. But recent developments in Portland, where one single shipping line is reviving that city’s long-dormant cargo port, effectively contradict that assumption.
Maine urgently needs new trade opportunities and has the key assets required: available natural resources, an underemployed workforce and critical infrastructure, including three well-positioned small ports. Searsport holds significant potential, but its geography will always restrict it to its role as a niche port and prevent it from posing a threat to local fishing or tourism interests.
Opposition to projects in and around Searsport has become routine, causing at least one sizeable new investment opportunity to bypass the town in recent years.
Local opponents of port-related development dismiss the notion that increased port activities could boost the local and state economies. Underachievement, it seems, is accepted as a local trademark. Young Mainers lack opportunities and sufficient financial resources. For many families and communities, that has become the norm. Searsport’s proposed improvements, coupled with developing new trade opportunities, can help reverse the trend, generate jobs and grow incomes as far inland as Aroostook County.
The Army Corps’s thorough environmental assessment of Searsport’s project has produced no findings that warrant a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement as demanded by the Islesboro Island Trust. That would add years of delay, which may well be part of the trust’s objective. However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England regional administrator H. Curtis Spalding has already advised Maine’s congressional delegation that the “EPA believes [that] the proposed project can be accomplished with minimal and temporary impact.”
Residents of Searsport should base their decisions on input provided by knowledgeable experts rather than self-serving reports or alarmist claims aimed at undermining public confidence in the permitting process.
Andrew E. Sturgeon is chairman of the board for the Action Committee of 50, a Bangor-based organization interested in improving and promoting regional economic development opportunities.