For the third time in ten years, a plan to dump dredged material into Penobscot Bay between Rockland and Vinalhaven was drastically scaled back after meeting stiff public resistance.

Cianbro Corporation has dropped plans to dispose of 32,000 cubic yards of Penobscot River sediment into a disposal site some four and a half miles off Rockland’s shoreline. Cianbro’s plan drew criticism from Vinalhaven residents and area fishermen because of concerns over the proposed volume of material to be deposited and fear of contaminants in the material. The company now plans to dredge only 15,000 cubic yards of material and deposit it on land.

While the decision was a victory for those opposing the dredge disposal plan, it also probably felt like déjà vu. Susan Lessard, Vinalhaven’s town manager from 1993 to 2000 and now Hampden’s town manager, helped oppose two similar plans during her island tenure: the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) and credit card purveyor MBNA both wanted to deposit dredged and/or contaminated material at the Penobscot Bay site. After meeting resistance in public hearings, Maine DOT scaled down the volume of material deposited in the Rockland site and disposed of all contaminated material on land. MBNA officials went one step further, dropping their project altogether.

“They came and got their [proposal] books back,” Lessard said.

Lessard was not involved in the recent Cianbro dredge proposal. She said she was impressed with how much Maine DOT was willing to change its proposal to find a solution that worked for everyone, but it puzzled her why the department didn’t just talk with locals about their concerns first before issuing an initial proposal.

“If they took it into consideration up front, they wouldn’t have [had] to redo things,” Lessard said.

Dredging project proposals tend to be a “hot-button issue,” said Tom Fredette, New England marine disposal site monitoring manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They also tend to be confusing.

Because of their distance to shore, different Maine disposal sites are covered by different federal statues, one stricter than the other. Several years ago, a Portland Harbor dredge project legally disposed of material at the Rockland site instead of at a closer site so the dredge company could avoid a biological test.

Some of the confusion surrounding dredge-disposal sites might stem from the relative newness of the public process. Dredge projects have been around almost as long as commercial shipping, said Fredette, but they’ve only been regulated since the 1970s.

While there are three federally-recognized dump sites off Cape Arundel, Rockland and Portland, there are also several less-frequently used sites. There are no sites further east than Rockland. In the past, sites were started with little scientific inquiry, said Brian Swan, Maine Department of Marine Resources environmental coordinator.

“Probably years ago, somebody looked on the chart and saw a deep space,” Swan said.

The sites now in use are simply extensions of the best of the informal sites.

The Rockland site is perhaps the most contentious of the three major sites in Maine. The site ranges from 210 to 260 feet deep, much of it in a valley-like depression in the sea floor. The site is stable, Fredette says, because waves have only been recorded to go down about 200 feet. Army Corps data shows 1,167,800 cubic yards of sediment were disposed of there between 1974 and 1999, though Fredette warned records were incomplete at the beginning of that period.

He said Army Corps data showed little biological impact from the disposal over the years, save for the initial smothering of most non-mobile marine life on the ocean floor at the time of the disposal. If anything, he said, lobsters might have a slight preference for the sediment once it’s settled.

“The bottom is not a biological desert,” he said.

But fishermen have long contended the site is too critical as lobster habitat to be a disposal site.

“It seems to be situated almost in the heart of some of the most productive lobster habitat,” said state Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Trenton), chair of the legislature’s Marine Resources committee.

The site’s opponents may have a tough time shutting it down. Fredette said there are several scenarios that could shut down the site, including the state deciding to stop issuing permits. It’s unclear whether such a move might leave the state vulnerable to lawsuit from federal or private interests.

Then there is the problem of where to put dredged material if the Rockland site were to shut down. Any new site would require an extensive environmental review that would cost some $100,000. The review would have to prove it would be better to impact a new site rather than use the existing one.

Swan said legislators may be reluctant to fund such a project; they’re already having trouble raising the funds to find a suitable replacement for the Cape Arundel site, which is scheduled to close in 2010. Fredette said it was unlikely a replacement for the Cape Arundel site will be found in the next three years because of budget constraints.

“The funds are really hard to come by these days,” Swan said.

Some, like state Rep. Hannah Pingree (D-North Haven), have instead focused their energies on trying to change the permitting process to consider the economic impact of disposal on local fishing communities.

Others, like town manager Lessard, recommend working within the current process and keeping vigilant about proposed dredge projects. Lessard said if fishermen and those in affected communities voice their concerns, there’s a good chance to amend a dredge project so everyone gets what they need.

“The process works,” Lessard said. “What it requires is that people pay attention.”