SEARSPORT, Maine — Lobstermen, environmentalists and others concerned about the health of upper Penobscot Bay crowded into Searsport District High School cafeteria Tuesday night to share their thoughts about a proposed $12 million Searsport Harbor dredging project.
Many wore red shirts as a sign of solidarity during the Maine Department of Marine Resources public hearing on the impact to the fishing industry of the dredging project. All who spoke warned of the possible negative effects the dredging and dumping of 900,000 cubic yards of silt and sediment could have on the bay.
“The spoils from this project might affect my ability to make a living,” David Black, who lives in Belfast and has been a lobsterman in the area for 50 years, said. “I’m not opposed to maintenance dredging, but I am opposed to this project.”
As proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the project would do two things. It would dredge the federal navigation channel to a depth of 40 feet in order to maintain it, generating an estimated 37,000 cubic yards of material. The channel hasn’t been touched since it originally was dug to a depth of 35 feet in 1964 and now contains portions that are only 33 feet deep. More controversially, according to many who spoke Tuesday night, the project also would greatly enlarge the entrance channel and turning basin that leads to the Mack Point industrial port, generating nearly 900,000 cubic yards of dredge material.
Searsport Harbor is the busiest deep-draft commercial port north of Portland and handles cargo including heating oil, diesel, forest products, road salt and gypsum. Army Corps officials have said the size of ships that come to Mack Point has increased and that the existing depths in the navigation channel are inadequate for existing and future vessel traffic.
Opponents of the project, such as the Islesboro Island Trust, many environmental advocates, several state representatives and area lobstermen, have a variety of concerns, including whether the dredged material may be contaminated. Enough mercury has been found northeast of Mack Point to close upper Penobscot Bay to lobster and crab fishing; fishermen and others are worried about where the dredged material would be dumped.
Jillian Liversidge of Stockton Springs said she is the daughter of a lobsterman and is deeply passionate about protecting Maine’s natural resources.
“I’m emotional and sad,” she said. “This is not what Maine is about. Maine is not about companies coming in and taking over our precious resources. There are a lot of hard-working Mainers this is going to impact.”
Rock Alley, president of the Maine Lobstering Union, came from Jonesport to tell officials from the Department of Marine Resources his thoughts on the dredging.
“These guys are really concerned about the waste that would be dumped on their lobster bottom,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to get the lobster industry back. I believe [the dredging] is the wrong thing to do.”
Although no one spoke in favor of the dredging project Tuesday night, others have in the past, including David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association.
“The bottom line is that the channel was designed 50 years ago, and the reality is that ships have gotten larger,” he told the BDN last year. “We’ve played the tide. This is not a new practice. This is something mariners do around the world, but it’s a balancing act and doesn’t address having a more efficient port or addressing the greater safety standards of today.”
Members of the Action Committee of 50, a Bangor-based economic development group comprised of business and civic leaders, also voiced support for the project during a public meeting on the proposed dredging held at the Cross Insurance Center in February 2014.
“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 Department of Marine Resources will continue to accept comments from the public about the proposed dredging until June 25, 2015. Comments can be mailed to Denis Nault, Department of Marine Resources, 21 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333; by calling 207-422-2092; or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.