Lobster fishermen, supporters see — and wear — red at Belfast dredge meetingMajority of speakers push for public hearing on proposal
Belfast — The second informational meeting regarding a proposed maintenance and improvement dredging project at Searsport Harbor held Tuesday, April 8, drew a standing-room only crowd at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast.
Several members of the audience wore red shirts to the meeting to show solidarity with Maine's lobster fishermen, many of whom continued to express concern about the project's potential adverse impacts on their livelihoods Tuesday afternoon.
Belfast lobster fisherman Mike Dassatt asked why taxpayer money should be used to improve the port solely for the benefit of private businesses, particularly at the expense of the fisheries.
"The lobster fishing industry, and all of the other fishing industries, are a public resource," he said.
ACE Project Study Manager Barbara Blumeris said just as the fisheries are a public resource, so, too, is the water channel at issue.
"It's a federal channel, and it's open to all," she said.
Maine Port Authority Director of Operations and Business Development Patrick Arnold said the maintenance and improvement dredging will have a positive economic impact for the region. He said if deep water channels and piers are not maintained properly, they will become less competitive and will eventually drive up the cost of necessities like fuel.
Dassatt also took issue with portions of the ACE presentation detailing dredge projects in Boston, Rhode Island and around Long Island, particularly the part indicating there was no connection between the dredging projects and the decline in the fishing industries in those areas.
"You are taking a chance on destroying this resource," said Dassatt. "... And in all three of those places, they have no lobster fishing left."
Dassatt then added, "If they collapse our fisheries, who's going to bail me out?"
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District held the second event, billed as a Water Quality Certification pre-application public information meeting, on Tuesday, April 8. The meeting was originally set for March 26 and was scheduled in response to public outcry that the first meeting was not held in a location closer to the project site in Searsport, but due to inclement weather, the second meeting was postponed until this week.
The Army Corps held the meetings to present the work it has done on a feasibility study that proposes expanding the channel into Searsport Harbor and deepen it from 35- to 40-feet at low tide. The project, according to Blumeris, would deepen the existing entrance channel and turning basin from a depth of -35 feet to -40 feet. In addition, the entrance channel, currently 500 feet wide at its narrowest point, would be widened to 650 feet, and a maneuvering area adjacent to State Pier's east berth in Long Cove would be created. Dredged material would be disposed of at the identified disposal site in Penobscot Bay, located off Islesboro. With the proposed project, deep draft vessels would be able to access the port more efficiently, and transportation costs for goods arriving at the port would be reduced, according to information presented by the Army Corps.
Rock Alley of Jonesport, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Union, urged the ACE staff to reconsider dumping the dredge spoils into the bay and instead explore the potential for disposing of the material at an inland site.
"We've worked hard in the industry, over the years, to get to where we are," he said. "... I don't understand why you can't haul it over land."
ACE Program Manager Steven Wolf said moving that volume of dredged materials to a land-based disposal site could be cost-prohibitive and could involve a very large tract of land to accommodate all of the material. In addition, Wolf agreed with Alley that disposing of the spoils in the water would "clearly impact that system" but added that the effects would be temporary and would only impact "a small percentage of the bay."
Anne Crimaudo of Searsport asked why there is a need to conduct the improvement dredging now when government agencies had previously stated it was not necessary to accommodate the Liquefied Petroleum Gas tankers that would have come to Mack Point had DCP Midstream been successful in its bid to come to Searsport.
"There is a contradiction there," said Crimaudo.
Blumeris said the determination that the port could adequately handle the LPG tanker traffic was the United States Coast Guard, not the ACE, and added the USCG determined the tankers could only come to port at high tide.
"I think some of the information has been twisted," said Blumeris.
Will Neils called Tuesday's meeting "a sham and a shame," stating that they do not and will not serve as a replacement for a public hearing. He expressed frustration that the proposed project would benefit the small portion of Maine people who are connected to big business.
"There's a lot more people here catching bugs in this bay," he said.
After seeing the state's two other traditional industries — logging and farming — disappearing in recent years, Neils said he was not pleased to see this proposal come to fruition if it means the loss of the fishing industry.
Neils, a candidate for state representative from Appleton, also noted that the early afternoon meeting was more challenging for him and other working people to attend, who were not getting paid to attend unlike the ACE staff.
"They all took the day off, so remember that," he said.
Neils pressed for an indication that a public hearing would be scheduled in the near future, and Blumeris said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that will consider the ACE's Water Quality Certification application, "may choose" to hold a hearing.
"We demand it!" yelled a woman in the crowd, a comment that generated applause.
House District 42 State Representative Joe Brooks (U-Winterport), asked whether the agency would conduct and Environmental Impact Study, as many in the public requested at the previous meeting.
"Then we won't be relying on anecdotal information," he said. "We can't survive on anecdotes."
Friends of Penobscot Bay President Harlan McLaughlin of Searsport asked the same question, and also pressed ACE staff on how members of the public would go about getting a public hearing scheduled in regards to the proposal.
Blumeris suggested those who want a public hearing to send those requests to MDEP.
In regards to the Environmental Impact Study, ACE Chief of Public Affairs Larry Rosenberg said anything was on the table at this stage in the application process.