Local officials weighed in on the proposed plans to dredge Searsport Harbor at Mack Point and called for more environmental review before the project moves forward.

The proposed dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the Maine Department of Transportation calls for removing nearly 1 million cubic yards of material from the harbor. The spoils from the dredge would then be dumped off of Islesboro or at a Rockland site.

Specifically, the dredging project would involve increasing the depth of the entrance channel and turning basin in Searsport Harbor from its current depth of 35 feet to 40 feet deep. In addition, the entrance channel would be widened at its narrowest point from 500 feet to 650 feet wide.

Finally, a maneuvering area would be created in Long Cove, which is adjacent to the eastern berth along the State Pier, according to the ACE.

Because of the potential impact to the island community, the Islesboro Board of Selectmen asked other local communities to send letters to the ACE requesting a detailed Environmental Impact Statement or a full Supplemental Environmental Assessment be completed before the dredging project begins.

In the letter sent to the Belfast City Council, the Islesboro selectmen state the proposed dredging would “have an adverse effect on businesses in the region, especially lobstering, boatyards and the service sector built upon a scenic and environmentally viable bay.”

Later in the letter, the selectmen state that they are not questioning the need for minor dredging in Searsport Harbor, but that their issue is with the amount of material proposed to be dredged.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, Belfast resident Peter Wilkinson urged the council to not only send the letter requesting additional study of the project, but to demand that the studies be completed.

Wilkinson said there is concern that the amount of material that will be removed as part of the proposed dredging project will allow for further development at Mack Point — possibly in the form of a deep-water cargo port.

“If it became a deep-water cargo port there would be such disruption of the bay it would make the formerly proposed LPG tank seem somewhat benign in comparison,” Wilkinson said.

City Manager Joseph Slocum noted in his manager's report to councilors that he spoke with a local fisherman who said the area where the dredge spoils would be dumped off of Islesboro is a valuable resource for incubating young lobsters.

Councilor Mike Hurley said he also spoke with local fishermen who had concerns about the location of where the spoils would be dumped before he motioned to have the city send a letter to the ACE asking for the Environmental Impact Study or a full Supplemental Environmental Assessment.

After further discussion, Hurley clarified that the council is not opposed to the dredging but it is concerned about the location where the dredged materials will be dumped.

Mayor Walter Ash agreed and questioned whether a suggestion could be made to the ACE to consider dumping the spoils on land as opposed to in the bay, which could negatively impact fishing grounds.

“I'm quite concerned about it myself,” Ash said of where the spoils would be dumped.

Councilors unanimously approved Hurley's motion to send a letter to the ACE asking for further study of the dredging project before it begins.

Searsport weighs in

The Searsport Select Board also agreed to send a letter requesting more environmental study after several members of the public requested they do so.

During the board's Nov. 19 meeting five members of the public spoke, urging the selectmen to send a letter asking for more core sampling of the proposed dredging area or a full environmental impact study. Several of the people who spoke said they were in favor of the proposed maintenance dredging, but not the dredging to expand the channel.

Searsport resident Steve Tanguay said he was specifically concerned with the dredging in Long Cove. He said that deepening the water in that area could cause increased wave action, which he said could damage the sensitive clam population in that area.

Searsport resident Anne Crimaudo said she would like to see more core samplings done of the proposed dredging area that penetrates to the depth the dredging would. Crimaudo said more sampling is necessary to determine if the dredging could stir up potentially harmful chemicals that may have settled in the sediment. The Army Corps has done some core sampling, but Crimaudo said it has not been deep enough.

Captain David Gelinas, who has worked in Searsport Harbor for more than 20 years, spoke in favor of the dredging project and asked the selectmen to not do anything that could slow the project down.

Gelinas said the expanded dredging was necessary to make the harbor safe for the ships using it. Modern safety standards, like double hulls, have caused the size of shipping vessels to increase, Gelanis told the selectmen. Safety protocols now call for more water under the keel of ships entering the harbor as well, Gelinas said, sometimes twice the amount previously required.

He said when the harbor was constructed in the 1960s such standards were not in place and the ships were smaller, meaning the channel could be shallower and narrower.

Searsport resident Marietta Ramsdell spoke at the meeting and questioned why the harbor needed to accept such large ships.

Gelinas said that since the ships deliver goods to many local businesses, using more smaller vessels could increase costs.

"If you want a port that is competitive with all the other ports built and maintained to 1960s standards, fine," Gelinas said. "But if you want to have a port that is competitive and have the same safety standards that most of the ports in the county and world have, you need to look at those external factors."

Selectman Dick Desmarais also spoke in favor of the dredging and suggested that outside opposition was politically motivated.

"This is a political football for people from elsewhere in Maine that don't have a dog in the fight on the coast," Desmarais said. "This is extremely vital to Searsport … We need this it is a safety issue for the whole bay."

Selectman Meredith Ares made a motion to have the Select Board write a letter similar to the one Islesboro sent, but failed to get a second.

Chair Aaron Fethke said he would make a motion to ask ACE to perform additional core samples in the dredging area, so long as it did not delay the project, and to hold an informational meeting in Searsport to explain portions of the project to the community. However, he noted that the letter was not likely to receive much attention since the public comment period for the project had ended. Fethke's motion received a second and was passed by the selectmen.

Republican Journal Editor Dan West contributed reporting to this story.