BELFAST, Maine — Politicians and lobstermen came together in Belfast on Tuesday at a press conference held to urge state and federal agencies to slow down and reduce the scope of a proposed Searsport harbor dredging project.
“You need to put the brakes on this thing,” fisherman David Black of Belfast said to the applause of the few dozen people at the Belfast Boat House. “Let’s do some more work before we go any further.”
At the event, organized by the Islesboro Islands Trust, a group of Maine legislators made a formal request to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Board of Environmental Protection to conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement of the proposed Searsport Harbor expansion dredging.
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, removing 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 contains portions that are only 31 feet deep, according to a Penobscot Bay harbor pilot. More controversially, the project also would greatly enlarge the entrance channel and turning basin that leads to the Mack Point industrial port, removing nearly 900,000 cubic yards of dredge material.
Searsport Harbor is the busiest deep-draft commercial port north of Portland and handles cargo such as 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.
The dredged material likely would be deposited in upper Penobscot Bay, at a site between Islesboro and Bayside in Northport, according to a map created by the Islesboro Islands Trust.
The lawmakers present said they are concerned with the potential negative economic impact of the project on lobstering, aquaculture and tourism, including the chance the deposited sediment would smother lobster habitat or contain mercury and other toxins. They also urged state officials to look closely at the so-called “Dawson Alternative,” a plan commissioned by the Islesboro Islands Trust that would incorporate maintenance dredging in the port’s turning basin and at the piers, but that would create just 80,000 cubic yards of dredge material.
“I’m not opposed to a maintenance dredge, but I’m very concerned with the size and scope of this dredge project,” Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, said. “I think this ought to be very slowly, carefully and deliberately examined before more than a few buckets of mud are removed. We all know that our beautiful, spectacular Penobscot Bay has also been a sewer.”
He was joined by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship; Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast; Rep. Anne Beebe-Center, D-Rockland; and Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Camden. Other lawmakers were not present at the press conference but joined in signing a letter sent to Commissioner Patricia Aho of the Maine DEP, Chairman James W. Parker of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection and Commissioner Patrick Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“The idea that we can’t get an environmental impact statement from the Army Corps or the Maine Department of Transportation doesn’t seem wise. It seems foolish,” Evangelos said.
In addition to requesting the environmental impact statement, Steve Miller, executive director of the Islesboro Islands Trust, said after the press conference that his group has requested the Maine Board of Environmental Protection take jurisdiction over the Searsport dredging project from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
At the end of June, Aho sent a letter to the Islesboro Islands Trust and other interested parties to say she has determined it would be helpful to hold a public hearing on the potential impact of contaminants in dredge spoils but did not specify when the hearing will be held. In the same letter, she also recommended that project jurisdiction remain with the Department of Environmental Protection and not the board.
Miller anticipates the Board of Environmental Protection will decide next week whether they assume jurisdiction anyway. After jurisdiction is decided, the application will start to be reviewed, he said.
“The board has a much more vigorous, open and democratic review process than does the DEP,” Miller said. “We think it’s more open and more likely to produce an appropriate outcome.”
An official with the Department of Marine Resources said Tuesday afternoon that his agency has no comment on the request. Efforts to reach officials from Maine DEP and the Maine Board of Environmental Protection were not immediately successful.
Some in Maine are in favor of the proposed dredging, however. Capt. Skip Strong, who belongs to the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association and who did not attend the Tuesday meeting, said in a telephone interview later that day that pilots “certainly think” the channel needs to be deepened.
“For the most part, everything we do there has to be tide-based,” he said, adding that ships are bigger than they were in 1964, when the channel first was dredged. “To make the port more efficient and more attractive to users, we’d have to make it deeper.”
Strong also said that, according to federal law, if the dredged material is contaminated, it cannot be discharged in federal waters.
“In my personal opinion, there is a lot of fear out there, because people don’t understand what’s going on,” he said.