BELFAST — The planned dredging of parts of Searsport Harbor is unprecedented in scope with potentially catastrophic results, a group of coastal legislators and activists said in a press conference on Wednesday, Nov. 6.

The group is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental impact study before permitting the work, which would remove 900,000 cubic yards from areas around the Mack Point port facility. The work as proposed goes beyond maintenance dredging and would increase depths and expand a turning basin for ships.

The dredge spoils would be dumped off Marshall Cove on the west shore of Islesboro, a designated disposal site that has not been used in several decades, or in the designated disposal site between the Rockland breakwater and North Haven island.

Some 30 sitting legislators signed a letter asking for the study.

About 50 people, most seemingly in support of the call for an environmental assessment, attended the press event in the Belfast Boathouse.

Becky Bartovics of North Haven, representing the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club, summarized the group’s position as asking the Army Corps “to do their job.”

Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, who is House chairman of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, said he was not opposed to maintenance dredging—a point other speakers echoed—but said the work as proposed “goes way beyond maintenance.”

Some towns along Penobscot Bay depend on working harbors, he said, but lobstering also is a key component of the region’s economy. Since Mack Point has been an industrial harbor for more than 100 years, the concern is that toxins associated with petroleum and other products likely will be found in the dredged material.

“You can’t put the most productive lobstering grounds in the world at risk without a full assessment,” said Kumiega.

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, who is the Marine Resources Committee’s Senate chairman, said the dredging that would go beyond maintenance of existing channels and turning basins would provide an “ill-defined benefit” and that “the only responsible course of action” is further study.

Proponents of the dredging project, which would be paid for by a mix of federal and state funds, argue that silting near the piers has caused unsafe conditions in which to maneuver ships. In addition, they say that larger ships requiring wider turning basins soon will be the vessels of choice, and that without the additional depth and area, they will call at other ports.

Proponents say Mack Point and a possible future port facility on adjacent state-owned Sears Island are essential to the economic well-being of central and eastern Maine, providing a conduit to import heating oil, gasoline, road salt and other products and to export paper and forest products.

Johnson said while improved port facilities would help the operators, communities and fisheries in the region could be hurt. A larger port and the dumping of dredge material could hurt existing businesses, he said.

Larry Rosenberg, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps’ New England office, said public comments on the project are being reviewed. When that process is complete—he would not give a timeframe—then a decision would be reached on whether to pursue of full environmental study.

The Army Corps aims to balance the interests of the environment, commerce and other factors as well as considering the need in making its permitting decisions, he said.

The state Department of Transportation and Army Corps have a cost-sharing agreement on the feasibility study for the project, he said.

Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, who described himself as former naval officer who has piloted vessels including a 1,000-foot long aircraft carrier and a marine biologist, said the area to be dredged is spawning grounds for some species of fish.

“But this is not the only issue of concern,” Devin said. “For decades, industrial runoff and fuel spills that include mercury, PCBs, PAHs and other pollutants have contaminated the sediment in and around Mack Point.”

Arch Gillies, chairman of the board selectmen on Islesboro, which ships pass on their way to Mack Point, also questioned the need for dredging beyond returning the pier area to historic depths. The bulk of the dredged material would be produced by this new dredging.

Gillies noted that town boards of both Islesboro and North Haven have requested that the Army Corps undertake a full environmental assessment.

All comments and studies submitted to the Army Corps may be reviewed at: