Since 2000, the Maine Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have pushed to deepen the shipping channel in Searsport. In 2000, they proposed deepening the channel from 35 feet to 37 feet. This proposal was abandoned after many voiced concerns about the devastating effect on the lobster fishery.
Subsequently, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a resolution directing the Corps to determine whether any changes to the channel and turn-around in Searsport were needed.
In 2013, the Corps released a study proposing to deepen the channel from 35 feet to 40 feet, dredging almost a million cubic yards of material and dumping it into Penobscot Bay. The Corps claimed that deepening the harbor was needed to allow existing vessel traffic with drafts greater than 35 feet to use this port without waiting for a tide or “light-loading” cargos. Again this time, the Corps gave little consideration to the effect on the lobster industry.
Data compiled by the Corps’ Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center demonstrates that deepening the Searsport channel will reduce wait times for an average of only eight vessels a year.
Prior testimony to the Searsport Planning Board by dredging proponent David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association confirmed that few vessels using this port come with less than a full load, or light-loaded, because of the depth of the channel; instead, vessels drop off part of their cargo at earlier ports — a practice known as split discharging that the Corps acknowledges would continue even if the channel depth is deepened.
Maintenance dredging is all that is needed in Searsport. That would require the removal, at federal expense, of only 37,100 cubic yards of material, compared with nearly 900,000 cubic yards of material for the 40-foot dredge. No one opposes maintenance dredging, although none of these spoils should be dumped in Penobscot Bay.
While the environmental damage from the proposed dredging is clear, deepening the channel will also have significant adverse economic effects in the Penobscot Bay region.
The greatest of these adverse effects will be borne by the lobstermen of zones C and D, who make more than 46 percent of all annual lobster landings in Maine. The value of this catch in 2012 was more than $157 million at the dock. The value to the Maine economy is exponentially higher.
The proposed dumping of Mack Point dredge spoils — much of which contain dangerous contaminants and heavy metals, including mercury, lead and arsenic — could devastate the lobster industry.
If the contamination and volume of dredge spoils do not destroy the Penobscot Bay lobster fishery outright, dumping contaminated spoils could do irreparable harm to the reputation for wholesomeness of Penobscot Bay lobsters and, thus, to the iconic “Maine Lobster” brand.
The Searsport dredging proposal would cost taxpayers about $13 million. According to the Corps, the intended beneficiaries of this expenditure are the shippers; Sprague Energy and Irving Oil, both foreign-owned oil companies, are heavy users of Searsport Harbor. The only benefit identified by the Corps for this expenditure — and not provided by maintenance dredging — is to reduce the time that ships with drafts more than 35.2 feet have to wait for a tide to berth.
The Corps claims that Sprague and Irving will save $845,000 a year if the channel is deepened to 40 feet. However, the Corps’ own records confirm that between 2003 and 2012, only 82 with a draft greater than 35 feet have used the port of Searsport (an average of eight per year).
Compare this with Portland, Maine’s largest port, and Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire. From 2007 to 2011, an average of 321 vessel landings were made annually in Searsport — fewer than seven on average by vessels with drafts greater than 35 feet. During this same period, an average of 23,137 vessel landings were made annually in Portland; an average of 209 vessels had drafts greater than 35 feet. In Portsmouth, an average of 948 vessel landings were made annually, with an average of 23 vessels having drafts greater than 35 feet.
Yet the Corps has determined that 35 feet is the appropriate depth to maintain the channels in both Portland and Portsmouth. If 35 feet is deep enough for the busy, industrial Portland and Portsmouth channels, why is 40 feet, the same depth as Boston Harbor, required in Searsport?
Forget public health, forget the environment. This proposal simply makes no sense just based on the math. Mainers need to tell DOT and the Corps that 35 feet is deep enough in Searsport.
Kim Ervin Tucker of Isleboro is an attorney assisting the Zone D Lobster Council and the Sierra Club of Maine on a pro bono basis in opposing any dumping of Mack Point dredge spoils into Penobscot Bay.