SEARSPORT — A dredging project proposed for the port facility at Mack Point is nearing the federal permitting phase and regulators are seeking public input.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will accept public comment through Monday, May 6.

In the notice, the Army Corps’ New England district notes that it plans to dig some 929,000 cubic yards from the bottom of the channel that approaches the two piers at Mack Point and from a ship maneuvering area. The dredged material would be dumped at one of two sites: the Penobscot Bay disposal site, just southwest of Turtle Head on Islesboro, or the Rockland site, which is about halfway between the Rockland breakwater and the westerly tip of North Haven.

The proposed dredging is aimed at returning channels to the depths at which they were first developed in the early 1960s—known as maintenance dredging, to rid the channel bottom of siltation—as well as to expand a vessel maneuvering and approach area.

The work would deepen the port’s existing entrance channel and turning basin from 35 feet at mean low water to 40 feet at mean low water.

In addition, the entrance channel would be widened from 500 feet at its narrowest to 650 feet. This area also would be dredged to a depth of 40 feet.

A 2004 Army Corps study supported the need for dredging the channel.


The Army Corps and the Maine Department of Transportation seek to “improve the existing federal navigation project for Searsport Harbor at Mack Point,” the notice states, “to accommodate the deep-draft vessels that use the existing terminals at the port.”

DOT officials and David Gelinas, president of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association, have said that ships currently must wait to dock to load or unload until the tide is favorable, or ships bound for Searsport do not load to capacity because of the lack of depth. Both increase transportation costs, they say.

“Searsport Harbor at Mack Point is the largest deep-draft commercial port north of Portland,” the notice states.

The maintenance dredging portion of the project would account for 37,000 cubic yards of spoils. The improvement portion of the project would account for 892,000 cubic yards.

The dredge material is described in the Army Corps notice as “glacial material consisting of clay and till.”


Diane Cowan, executive director of the Lobster Conservancy based in Friendship, said dredge material dropped on lobster habitat could inhibit the creature’s ability to smell.

“Anything that knocks out the sense of smell is very detrimental to lobsters,” she said. “They depend on it the way we depend on sight and sound.”

The nature of the material—if it contains contaminants—also is a critical factor, Cowan said.

“Even if it’s squeaky clean, dumping sediment on lobster habitat is detrimental,” she said. The way the material settled also could change the impact.

“Is it a dusting that the lobster can walk through, or does it [completely] bury the rocks?” she asked. “You’re hitting them where it hurts if you’re burying the rocks.”
Cowan was surprised that the Army Corps has not conducted an environmental impact assessment of the work.

Rick Wahle, a University of Maine research professor at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, was part of a team that studied the impact of dredge spoils on lobster at the site of Rockland. Dredge spoils were dumped 81 times from Nov. 18 through Dec. 20 of 2002. The team trapped lobster before the dumping started, and continued through the disposal period.

The study, published in 2007, concluded that impact on lobster was minimal, though much of that conclusion is tied to the timing, Wahle said, as lobster are leaving the bay in late fall. Interestingly, the study found that the crab population seemed to increase in the disposal area as the spoils were dumped, perhaps because the material was rich in worms and other organisms, he said.

 “A lot of it has to do with timing,” he said. “If it were done during the summer, there’s the potential to do some serious damage.”

Dredge material from harbor bottoms often contains petroleum-based compounds from old spills, and other contaminants that may have come from flaking ship bottom paint, Wahle said.

The Island Institute, the Rockland-based non-profit (which publishes The Working Waterfront) has submitted a letter to the Army Corps suggesting the risks may outweigh the need.

By limiting the project to maintenance dredging, the Island Institute concludes there would be enough depth for all but 11 of the 339 ships entering Searsport harbor in 2008.

Another concern raised in the letter by Rob Snyder, president-elect of the Island Institute, is that the proposed disposal area off Islesboro is not currently identified as such by NOAA and has not been used for dredge spoils. It is close to shore and close to important fishing grounds, the institute’s comment asserts.

“The economic health of the communities surrounding the bay is intertwined with the health of the bay itself,” Snyder wrote. “Decisions about activities happening in the bay need to take the health of the whole bay into account.”

The 929,000 cubic yards proposed for disposal at the Rockland site (or Islesboro site) dwarfs what has been dumped over the course of 16 years at the Rockland site.

According to the study published by Wahle and others, 586,050 cubic meters—or 766,524 cubic yards—have been dumped at the Rockland site between 1985 and 2001.


As part of a compromise plan for nearby Sears Island reached in 2007, the state DOT agreed to develop Mack Point on the mainland to its capacity before seeking to develop port facilities on the island, where 360 acres have been set aside for transportation uses.

The withdrawal of the DCP Midstream tank proposal and then its formal rejection by the Searsport Planning Board on the grounds that it was too big for Mack Point raises the question of whether the land-side part of the port is maxed-out. DOT wants to develop a container port on the island, which is linked to the mainland by a causeway.

Mack Point’s state pier handles aggregate materials, forest products and other bulk cargoes, while the adjacent pier, owned and operated by Sprague Energy, is used to unload fuels for both Sprague and Irving Oil, according to the Army Corps.

Since the state pier was added and the fuel pier upgraded about ten years ago, “the size of ships calling on Mack Point/Searsport Harbor has increased,” the notice states, so that existing depths are “inadequate for the existing and future vessel traffic.”

The work is expected to cost about $13 million, according to previously published reports, with $10 million coming from the federal government and $3 million from the state. State money for the dredging work was budgeted by the state three years ago, but cut in final deliberations.

The project was planned before the controversial DCP Midstream propane tank was proposed, and is not related to that application, DOT officials have said.

Comments must be submitted in writing and must “clearly set forth the interest which may be affected and the manner in which the interest may be affected by this activity,” according to the notice. The comments should be sent to: District Engineer, 696 Virginia Road, Concord, MA 01742-2751, attn: Engineering and planning division, Barbara Blumeris.

In addition, anyone with an interest that may be affected by the dredging may request a public hearing.

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