SEARSPORT, Maine — Opponents of a controversial $12 million dredging project for the local harbor hailed news Wednesday that state and federal officials had withdrawn their permit application from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
But an official with the Maine Department of Transportation, which is co-sponsoring the project said the withdrawal was likely temporary and that a revised application would probably be resubmitted.
A letter indicating that the application for a water quality certification was being withdrawn was sent Tuesday, Sept. 8, to the Maine DEP from Barbara Blumeris of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and from John Henshaw, director of ports and marine transportation for the Maine DOT.
“We may consider submitting a revised application for a water quality certification at a later date,” they said in the letter. “Thank you for your assistance and let us know if any additional information is required.”
Opponents of the proposed dredging project have said that it could churn up contaminants from the muddy bottom and have adverse effects on lobster fishing in Penobscot Bay. Supporters have said that it would improve cargo shipping access to the terminal at Mack Point and make the facility more economically competitive with other ports along the eastern seaboard.
Contacted Wednesday, Henshaw said he expects the withdrawal of the application will be only temporary. He said the timeline for the project has been extended because Maine DEP decided to require a public hearing for the application and, as a result, the Army Corps of Engineers has to determine whether it can accommodate the extended schedule.
“The [Army] Corps needs to seek internal authorization to keep working,” Henshaw said.
He added that the federal agency and MDOT have just ironed out an agreement on matching funds, with each side contributing an additional $150,000 to the application process. He said this suggests that the Army Corps will decide to continue working on the dredging proposal and that the water quality certification permit application will be re-submitted to Maine DEP.
“That is my expectation, yes,” Henshaw said.
Henshaw said he did not know how long it might take to re-submit the application. A public hearing on the project proposal will not be scheduled until after an application has been sent to Maine DEP, he said.
In a separate interview, Blumeris said the Army Corps wants more time to study the possible project and that the requirements from Maine DEP were making the application process take longer than had been expected.
She said the application was submitted in April and that the federal agency and MDOT had hoped to get a decision sometime this fall. With the extended timeline required by Maine DEP, she said, a decision likely would be made sometime in 2016.
Blumeris declined to comment on the likelihood that the Army Corps would re-submit the application, saying only that it may decide to do so “at a later date.”
Henshaw said the MDOT is interested in improving cargo ship access to Mack Point because the shallowest part of the channel is believed to be about 31 feet deep. The channel has not been dredged since it was first dug in 1964, he said.
Ships have gotten bigger since then, in part because of safety requirements such as double hulls, and the channel depth means ships can only come in at high tide. If the channel is deepened to 40 feet, Henshaw said, it will reduce costs for shipping companies by not forcing them to wait for the tide and will help boost economic opportunities in the area by improving cargo transportation.
As it is, Searsport’s harbor is the busiest deep-draft commercial port north of Portland and has both tractor-trailer and rail access to handle cargo such as heating oil, diesel, forest products, road salt and gypsum.
The controversial proposal to dredge the harbor would address two things, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
It would dredge the federal navigation channel to a depth of 40 feet in order to maintain it, removing an estimated 37,000 cubic yards of material. More controversially, the project also would greatly enlarge the entrance channel and turning basin that leads to the Mack Point industrial port, removing nearly 900,000 cubic yards of dredge material.
Islesboro Islands Trust, one of the more vocal critics of the dredging proposal, has championed what it calls the “Dawson Alternative,” named after a consulting firm it hired to explore possible options, which it says would generate far less dredged material. Under this alternative, the approach channel would be dredged to its original depth of 35 feet, the two piers at Mack Point would be dredged to depths of 45 feet, and the dredged sediment would be deposited at one or more appropriate locations on land instead of elsewhere in the bay.
Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Stephen Miller, executive director of the trust, said he was “quite pleased” that the application has been withdrawn. He said his hope is that MDOT and the Army Corps plan to spend more time giving serious consideration to the Dawson Alternative, which would cost less than $1 million and help protect lobster habitat in the bay.
“It’s a big matter that they have withdrawn it,” Miller said, adding that the trust’s preferred dredging plan will “save money, save headaches, and save the lobster.”
Attorney Kim Tucker, who represents fishermen and the Sierra Club in the proposed project, also said Wednesday that the Dawson Alternative is the way to go. She said it would improve access to Mack Point for larger ships, which would take a day or more to load or unload, and that it would decrease the effect of dredging on fishing activity in Penobscot Bay.
With the larger proposal, lobster fishing in the upper bay likely would be shut down for four years, she said, which would result in an estimated cumulative loss of income for Waldo County fishermen between $40.8 million and $68 million.
“If they dredge up [contaminants discharged by the former Holtrachem plant in Orrington], they will contaminate the entire food web of this bay,” Tucker said. “It’s a jobs and economics issue.”
Bangor Daily News writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.