In August, Portland Pipeline submitted an application to dredge the approach to Portland Harbor from inside Cushing Island to the Portland Pipeline pier. While the ramifications of this plan could be huge, David Cyr, President of Portland Pipeline said, “We feel we’ve been able to address all the concerns of the community.”

Others agree. “Portland Pipeline has been proactive in reaching out to the community,” said Doug Burdick, Portland’s permit assistant for the Bureau of Land and Water Quality within the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The dredge will bring the channel to a controlled depth of 50 feet below mean low water. This will make the channel deeper by between one and five feet. The added depth will allow vessels carrying greater loads into the port – thus decreasing the overall number of tanker deliveries into Portland Harbor.

“Portland Pipeline is already operating close to capacity now,” said David Sait, Director of the Maine State Division of Response Services. “The limiting factor is the volume of [crude] oil which can pass through the pipeline.” It is a valid assertion, according to Sait, that tanker traffic would decrease if the channel were a few feet deeper.

The problem with bringing larger vessels into the port, according to Sait, is the potentially larger impact of a spill. At present, tankers coming into Portland Harbor carry approximately 120 thousand deadweight tons each and are coming in slightly under full capacity, which might slow the speed at which the oil would flow out in the event of a punctured tank. If the channel is dredged, the volume could be increased to approximately 170 thousand deadweight tons and vessels would come in full. The EXXON VALDEZ, which hit a ledge off the coast of Alaska in 1989, carried 211 thousand deadweight tons. The effect a spill of that magnitude on the New England coast would be massive, potentially destroying both the fishing and tourism industries.

During the application research process, the pipeline has responded to local concerns by opening up a public meeting aimed at addressing the concerns of the fishing community.

Officials assert that the plan will have a minimal effect on the marine habitat and will improve the odds of preventing a major oil spill in Portland Harbor by decreasing the number of tankers making deliveries.

The dredge permit application is currently under review by the DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and The Portland Harbor Commission are being asked to review it. The DEP is scheduled to make a decision no later than Dec. 3.

Dick Ingalls, Chairman of the harbor commission, said, “I see no reason not to proceed. [This dredge project] would be a real boon to the Port of Portland.” Ingalls expects that the decision will be made shortly after the public meeting on Sept. 11.

This dredging project is self-funded exclusively by Portland Pipeline.

According to the Portland Dredge Committee, the 1998 dredging of Portland Harbor proper, done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cost approximately $5 million and removed 800,000 cubic yards of material, bringing the inner harbor to a level depth of 35 feet below mean low water. This project will remove 300,000 cubic yards from a greater amount of acreage in the outer harbor, which is not contaminated in any way, as were some of the fine sediments in the 1998 project. The last dredging of the outer channel was done in 1963. If the permit is approved, the sediments will be dumped in the same location as before in the Portland area dredge dump zone, approximately seven miles off Cape Elizabeth.

Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne said, “there will be habitat disruption – but it should be transitory.” Payne believes that the habitat of the area dredged will likely return to its natural order in a relatively short time, due to the bottom type: sand and shell hash, and the time of year. The dredging would start in mid-January, when lobsters are living offshore and after the harvest of most of the mature scallops. In addition, Payne noted that the Portland waterfront would not be directly affected by this project because the depth inside the Portland Pipeline pier is still only 35 feet, unchanged by this project.

There will be an opportunity for public comment at 5 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the chambers of the Portland City Council.

Roger S. Duncan lives in Bath and co-authored the 12th and most recent edition of The Cruising Guide to the New England Coast. He is the grandson of Working Waterfront columnist Roger F. Duncan.