SEARSPORT, Maine - The port at Mack Point in Searsport handles ships carrying oil, gypsum, salt and forest products - even disassembled wind turbines. But as ships have grown larger, it’s become harder to for them maneuver into the port. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed dredging a deeper shipping channel, and enlarging a basin to give them more room.
But a group of lawmakers wants state and federal agencies to scrutinize the proposal more closely. Flanked by six legislators and a selectman from Islesboro, Steve Miller said he is looking for some answers from the Army Corps of Engineers.
"With safeguarding our lobster industry and natural resources in mind, more than a year ago all of these representatives asked the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a comprehensive environmental impact statement to answer crucial questions about the proposed expansion dredging over in Searsport," Miller said. "The Army Corps, so far, has ignored that request."
Miller, the executive director of the Islesboro Islands Trust, says he thinks a smaller maintenance-dredging project would have less environmental impact, be much cheaper and still improving shipping.
As proposed by the Army Corps, the project would increase the depth of the shipping channel from 35 feet to 40 feet at mean low water, widen the channel from 500 feet to 650 feet, and create a larger maneuvering area. This would allow larger ships to dock without having to wait for a favorable tide.
But the project would create about 900,000 cubic yards of dredged material, which would be dumped in upper Penobscot Bay. This does not sit well with local lobstermen.
"My name is David Black and I’m from Belfast and I fish in this area out here. Wayne fishes beside me. We are the face of the destruction that this might cause out here."
Black says he worries the material will harm the bay’s fisheries. And he says state and federal regulators have not been listening to fishermen’s concerns. "I went to a hearing on the dredging for the Department of Marine Resources in Searsport about three weeks ago," he says, "and I wanted to make comments about the disposal site out here, and I was told that my comments were not appropriate - I could not make comments on this disposal site."
Erin Herbig, a Democrat who represents Belfast and surrounding towns in the Legislature, says Penobscot Bay is important to many aspects of the local economy.
"We're looking at seaweed harvesting, we're looking at scallops, clams," she says. "You're looking at so many different aspects of this bay and of our economy that this could potentially affect. Again, we just need to make sure we are making a responsible decision. We need to make sure we have all the information."
Although some legislators are asking questions, the state remains firmly behind the dredging proposal. John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, says the terminal is far overdue for dredging.
"The channel hasn’t been dredged in 50 years, ships are waiting on tides to get in," he says. "This adds costs to shippers, makes the port overall less competitive. Additionally ships have gotten larger, longer, wider, deeper, and so they have a requirement for additional maneuvering room."
Herbig and 12 other legislators sent a letter in June to Maine’s departments of Environmental Protection and Marine Resources, asking them to require the Army Corps to prepare an environmental impact statement for the project. The Army Corps of Engineers did not return calls by airtime.