Representatives of regional environmental groups joined three Maine Legislators Wednesday, Nov. 6 to formally request that the the Army Corps of Engineers conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement for an $11.2 million proposed dredging project at Searsport Harbor.

Reps. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, and Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, joined Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, at the Wednesday, Nov. 6 press conference, which was held at the Belfast Boathouse. Islesboro Selectman Arch Gillies was present to address concerns his town has raised in regards to the proposal, as was Islesboro Island Trust Executive Director Steve Miller and Sierra Club representative Becky Bartovics of North Haven.

Johnson and Kumiega are co-chairs of the joint committee on Marine Resources, and Devin is a member of the committee.

Devin, who is also a marine biologist, addressed his concerns as a professional and as a representative of District 51, which includes Monhegan Plantation.

Devin said due to his background as a retired naval officer with experience driving vessels of all sizes, he said he understands the need for maintenance dredging to keep shipping lanes open and safe. That said, Devin questioned the need for a dredge project of this size.

"However, the scope of this project goes well beyond maintenance dredging. The plan to dredge over 900,000 cubic yards of sediment is more than 20 times what was removed in previous dredging events. The project as proposed could drastically impact the environment and ecosystem," stated Devin, reading from a prepared statement.

The proposal

Previously published reports state the River and Harbor Act of 1962 first authorized the initial phase of work for the Searsport Harbor Federal Navigation Project, according to the ACE, and construction was completed there in 1964. The project consists of a navigation channel and turning basin, which at that time was authorized at 35 feet deep, and located in front of the piers at Mack Point. According to the ACE feasibility study for the proposed project, there has been no maintenance to the channel, and therefore the study calls for the removal of about 37,000 cubic yards of maintenance material.

The project proposal also includes plans to remove an additional 892,000 cubic yards from the area to deepen both the existing entrance channel and turning basin from their authorized depth of 35 feet to a depth of 40 feet, and another 31,000 cubic yards at the two existing piers.

The proposed disposal site for the nearly one million cubic yards of dredge sediment is located in upper Penobscot Bay, between Belfast Harbor and Islesboro.

The letter to the Corps that include Kumiega and Johnson's signatures and those of more than 25 additional Maine Legislator co-signers, stated, in part:

"The lobster fishery is Maine’s only healthy fishery and the economic mainstay of most coastal towns and offshore islands. We cannot risk harm to this critical resource."

What could it hurt?

Devin stated he was concerned the project could adversely impact fin fish like winter flounder, as well as lobster, sea urchins and scallops, all of which use the area as their nursing grounds. In addition, Devin raised concerned about the contaminants that may lie below the surface at the bottom of the channel as a result of industrial runoff and fuel spills that have occurred in and around Mack Point in the past.

Devin questioned where those toxins will go and how they might impact the fisheries that are vital to the state's economy.

"Marine larvae in the water column will especially be at risk. What steps will be taken to mitigate the impact of these released contaminants? What will be their consequence on human health?" stated Devin.

Devin also raised concerns about where that 900,000-plus cubic yards of dredge spoils will end up, and how it might affect that destination.

"There are numerous unanswered questions in the Army Corp's present plan, and even those questions that have answers are unsatisfactory," he stated. "It seems to me that a more thorough plan to mitigate the impacts to these animals should be developed, especially because so many Maine jobs rely on them."

Johnson agreed. He said the potential impact must be weighed alongside any benefit to the region, especially when he said the total impact of the lobster industry is valued at about $1.7 billion, a figure that includes benefits to businesses related to the industry.

Close to home

Gillies said Islesboro officials hope to garner the support of surrounding Penobscot Bay communities in the push for a more detailed study of the project, just as they did when they formally opposed the now-defunct proposal from Colorado-based DCP Midstream to build a Liquified Petroleum Gas storage tank at Mack Point. Town officials there have written two letters to the ACE urging that agency to conduct a more comprehensive analysis about the potential impacts of the dredging, Gillies said.

"I was very pleased that 11 towns in this area in the bay voluntarily joined in to question the [DCP] application, and then to oppose it," said Gillies. "I am hopeful the same thing will happen again."

In this instance, Gillies said, a more detailed study would produce more recent data that could then be used in broader discussions about what is best for the region.

Bartovics and Johnson both said the data used in the ACE environmental assessment for the proposed project is as much as a decade old.

"This is part of the process of asking them to do their due diligence," said Bartovics.

Sally Jones of Bangor, who brought along a giant replica of an Atlantic salmon, asked if the requested study would also include an assessment of the possible impacts on that species of fish.

Jones said there has been a big effort in Maine to clean up the Penobscot River as a way to help rehabilitate the salmon population, and she is concerned this project could damage any gains made on that front in recent years.

"So why wouldn't we also be mindful of the bay?" she said. "Perhaps a dredge can be done mindfully, but it's not going to be mindful without an Environmental Impact Study."