More than 30 speakers addressed representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers about its planned improvement dredging of Searsport Harbor, many expressing concern for the lobster fishery.

The Army Corps held a public meeting in Bangor Feb. 24 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.

Several attendees commented that the meeting would have been more convenient for interested parties had it been held in Searsport, where the dredging is proposed, rather than Bangor.

The meeting was required by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection before the Army Corps can file an application for a Water Quality Certification for the dredging project. Two members of the team that worked on the feasibility study have presentations to the more than 150 members of the public who attended the meeting detailing the scope of the project and the findings of the study.

Steven Wolf, the program manager for the Corps New England District dredged material disposal monitoring system, gave an overview of how dredging technology has improved to better dump material at sea. Wolf said the material tested in Searsport was clean and suitable for ocean dispersal.

Three sites have been looked at as possible disposal sites — Belfast, Rockland and Islesboro. The Islesboro site, called the Penobscot Bay site, has been identified as the best option. The Rockland site is too far, increasing the project cost, while the Belfast site is too shallow for the amount of material that is proposed to be dumped.

Wolf said the site, off the Northwest side of Islesboro, was the best option as it was deep enough and has a pockmarked seafloor, which would help to limit the spread of the dredge spoils from the site.

Lobstermen from around the state attended the meeting and raised concerns about the potential impacts the dredging project has on the lobster fishery. Some raised concerns about increased silt during storms, contamination of the dredge spoils and impact on other species of fish. Maine Lobstermen Union President Rocky Alley attended the meeting, but did not speak during the public comment portion. Alley told the Journal that he was attending the meeting to learn more about the project and would bring the information back to the Union members.

"This is pretty bad though, parts of it," Alley said. "It could have a big effect on the lobster industry."

Bud Hall, owner of Angler's Restaurant in Searsport, said he was concerned that the dredging could impact restaurants in the area. Hall referenced a recent decision by the Maine Department of Marine Resources to close an area to lobstering in Stockton Spring, just to the north of the proposed dredging site, due to mercury contamination.

Ron Huber of Friends of Penobscot Bay told the Army Corps he had "trust issues" with the state and federal authorities proposing this project. Huber referenced the building of the causway to Sears Island, and the attempt to develop Sears Island in the 1980s and 1990s as examples of the state acting in an untrustworthy manner.

Chair of the Islesboro Select Board Arch Gillies, along with several other speakers called for a full Environmental Impact Statement, a more in depth study than the Environmental Assessment already completed. Ten communities from around Penobscot Bay have joined with Islesboro to officially request such a study be completed.

Several speakers, including representatives from the Penbay Pilots Association and area business groups, spoke in favor of the dredging. Those speakers cited safety concerns for larger ships using the harbor. Larger double-hulled ships require more depth to enter a harbor and currently cannot make it into Searsport at low tide. Others, like John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said a deepened Searsport Harbor could give Maine industries a better option for exporting their products.

"We're jazzed about this port becoming the taking-off point for a resurgent forest products industry,” Porter said. "We can't survive as a region doing each other's laundry; we need value-added jobs."

However, other members of the public question how worthwhile the improvement dredging is considering the current amount of traffic the harbor sees, and the fact that Portland Harbor is the same depth at low tide as Searsport is now. Harlan McLaughlin, of Searsport, said he did not see the need for the improvement dredging.

"This improvement project is for ships not coming here now and aren't coming in the future," McLaughlin said. "This is all about funding make-work projects. You're saying, 'let's do it and hope people show up.'"

If the project does go forward it would deepen the existing entrance channel and turning basin from a depth of -35 feet to -40 feet at mean low water. 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 at the identified disposal site in Penobscot Bay. 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.

The public meeting is the first step in a lengthy process, which will eventually need an act of congress to fund the project and to move forward. The public will continue to have the option to make public comments as the Army Corps moves through the process, which will next involve apply for a Water Quality Certification from the Maine DEP.