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Maine Lobstermen Cry 'Foul' Over Proposed Searsport Harbor Dredging

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Leadership & Transparency
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By Gabriele Crognale

The state of Maine has long been synonymous with deep forested tracts of wilderness stretching from its western boundary with the Connecticut lakes in far northern New Hampshire, up to its northern border with the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. The state has long been associated with pristine springs, rivers and lakes, the habitat of its signature majestic large antlered moose – and all the while conjuring up images of the ubiquitous Poland Spring water bottle.

The southern and “downeastern” end of Maine is composed of miles of sandy beaches that gradually give way to rocky crags, jutting coastline, and hundreds of small rock outcrops and islands dotted with salty old lighthouses. This rocky coastline is the perfect breeding ground for the one sea creature that Maine is famous for, and makes up the heart of the state’s predominant seafood export – that delectable crustacean, the Maine lobster.

It also appears the “typical Maine rocky coastline” is the prime location where these tasty crustaceans are caught and eventually get exported far and wide to consumers’ tables. This is according to the most recent Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American Lobster Benchmark Stock Assessment and Peer Review Report, released last month. Of note, an interesting statistic gleaned from this NOAA study is: “… More than 98 percent of the total GOM (Gulf of Maine) catch has come from inshore NMFS statistical areas.”

This statistic is of great importance as it puts one such lobster breeding-ground right in the crosshairs of an ambitious U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and Maine DOT proposed project to dredge and deepen the channel in Searsport – to the tune of approximately $13 million – to allow two Canadian oil companies, Sprague Energy and Irving Oil, to off-load their crude oil at a local terminal at Mack Point.

At issue for these two oil companies is that they would prefer not to wait for a high tide to off-load their cargo at the terminal, and thus save – by their account – approximately $845,000 per year. To accommodate these oil companies, the COE would risk jeopardizing prime lobster breeding-grounds in western Penobscot Bay, by dumping approximately 1 million cubic yards of dredge spoils from the Searsport channel in areas of Penobscot Bay containing numerous pockmarks created by methane venting.

According to various sources queried, including the August 2015 article in The Fishermen’s Voice, a Gouldsboro, Maine, fishing trade newspaper: “… Lobstermen from the western half of Penobscot Bay have submitted documents to formally challenge the state of Maine’s proposed dredging to deepen the harbor at Mack Island, Searsport and the dumping of nearly 1 million cubic yards of contaminated industrial debris in upper Penobscot Bay.” According to this article, some observers of the proposed dredging project see it as another step in the long-range plans of eastern Maine developers to build a pipeline across Maine – the East-West Corridor.

In COE dredging projects such as these, it is not uncommon to request spot dredge samples to determine the extent of various industrial contaminants, such as chemicals and heavy metals (usually found in harbor and channel bottoms) that is then reviewed by the various Federal agencies involved in the COE Section 404 and Section 10 dredging permit process.

According to the article, critics of the proposed project have said that the spoils dredged from the site will be contaminated with industrial toxins. However, the commissioner of Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, Patricia Aho, has flatly “disputed these charges claiming the dredging is safe to conduct as planned,” Fishermen's Voice reported.

Aho’s comments have raised more than a few eyebrows, however, given her propensity for making decisions that favor the corporate clients of her former employer, Pierce Atwood, Maine’s largest law firm, the paper continued. A 2013 article from the Portland Press Herald brings this issue front and center.

Given what is at stake – the potential damage to a sustainable fishing cash cow – a prudent approach is needed. This could involve having the state agency requesting the dredging permit submit samples of the harbor muds and silts taken from various locations in the dredge area -- and clearly mapped out on a navigation chart – and have the samples spilt analyzed by independent laboratories for both parties to determine whether it is potentially hazardous to the lobsters or possibly other bottom-dwellers.

Of particular note, from previous data obtained, COE earlier this year acknowledged that at least 20 percent of proposed dredged material is “unsuitable for uncontained open ocean disposal because of the high level of contamination it contains – including PAHs, arsenic, nickel, copper, lead, chromium, cadmium and mercury." The last four metals are referred to in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts 260-270 as “heavy metals” and depending upon their concentration can be considered hazardous wastes.

As the referenced EPA toxicity chart shows, these concentrations can range from 1 milligram per liter to 5 mg/L, depending on the specific metal. It is highly improbable that the concentrations would be in that range, but until stringent sampling and testing is performed, this argument cannot be finalized.

In addition, according to Attorney Kim Tucker whom we contacted for additional information, this area has been identified as a geologically unstable area with known methane deposits, unapproved and undesignated for dredge spoils disposal under the criteria established by the Clean Water Act. The area was previously rejected for dredge spoils disposal for this same project in the late 1990s – a fact the Corps has concealed from the public in briefings and filings it has prepared, Tucker said.

In one such summary sheet Tucker provided, she noted that Western Penobscot Bay is where at least 20 percent of all lobsters in the U.S. are caught. (Additional information can be gleaned from the Marine Fisheries report noted previously.) The value of this catch continues to increase -- valued in 2014 at over $130 million and an estimated to add more than $600 million to the Maine economy – more than a 26 percent increase over 2013 levels. In fact, the lobster landings in the area proposed for dredging and dumping in Belfast Bay have increase by 282 percent since 2008, when the Corps gathered the data on which it based its Environmental Assessment of the anticipated impacts of this project on the lobster fishery in Pen-Bay.

On the presumption that the dredge spoils to be dumped in the Belfast Bay pock marks off the North West corner of Islesboro are clean, the turbidity that will be caused from re-suspension of dredge spoils by natural currents in the area that maintain these pock marks through scouring could devastate lobster settlements in Penobscot Bay. It could also destroy the nearby Pemaquid Mussel Farm aquaculture facility that brings an estimated $500,000 a year to the local economy from sales of clean, high-quality, locally-raised mussels.

However, because of the presence of contamination in Searsport and the upper Penobscot Bay – including the likely presence of buried HoltraChem legacy mercury that dredging in Searsport could disturb -- this dredging project also risks destroying the reputation for wholesomeness of ALL Maine lobsters. And, if dredging spreads methyl mercury contamination to any Pen-Bay lobsters, this project could irreparably damage demand for Penobscot Bay lobsters and the iconic Maine Lobster brand – a cornerstone of the Maine economy.

Here are a few additional facts about this project, courtesy of Tucker:

The Corps acknowledges that all benthic life forms (including lobsters) and organisms in the water column during the operation (including larval lobsters that have not settled) in the area impacted by the dredging, dumping and turbidity caused by this operation will be smothered and buried. In a meeting with lobstermen in 2014, Corps staff also acknowledged that it will take at least four years for “recovery and re-colonization” of the area impacted by this dredge-and-dump proposal by any benthic life forms (which includes lobsters). This is double the time that the Corps publicly acknowledges recovery and re-colonization would take in the 2013 FSEA.

A four-year loss of just the western Penobscot Bay lobster fishery could result in up to a $2.6 billion loss to the Maine economy – lost revenue that the Corps’ staff confirmed would not be reimbursed by the federal government. However, the Environmental Assessment, drafted in 2013 and submitted to DEP with their recent 2015 application to dredge, only acknowledges a two-year timeframe for such “recovery and re-colonization." Further, the Corps’ definition of “recovery and re-colonization” only means the return of some benthic life like worms – it does not indicate a return of productive lobster and scallop fisheries that will replicate the current levels of landings or that would continue the improvements in these fisheries that have been experienced in recent years.

The federal court’s sediment expert in the HoltraChem litigation, Dr. Kevin Yeager, determined that the Corps’ 2008 sediment testing was inadequate under both the RIM 2004 standards jointly issued by the Corps and EPA, and the federal court’s experts’ standards developed during the Penobscot River Mercury Study (PRMS) to detect the presence and effects of mercury, particularly HolraChem legacy mercury. The Yeager Report concludes that additional sediment testing was required using the PRMS standards before any dredging, even maintenance dredging, is done.

Unfortunately, the Corps did updated testing that failed to meet this standard and failed to even meet the standard required by the state DEP for Sprague to dredge the Searsport dock area in late 2014. PRMS requires 90-centimeter cores, and testing every 1 cm segment from 0-20 cm, 2 cm segments from 21-40 cm, and 5 cm segments from 41–90 cm. The updated 2014 Corps testing only looked at 1-foot segments from 1-3 feet cores and still found elevated levels of contaminants, despite using a methodology calculated to under-estimate and conceal the true level of contamination present in the sediment to be dredged and dumped.

From our own drilling down, we found this recent news item from the Bangor Daily News regarding the source of some of the heavy metals that may still be in the silts and muds of the Penobscot River and Bay. As the article states, the former HoltraChem site in Orrington, Maine, sits on the banks of the Penobscot River and produced 23,000 pounds of toxic mercury waste each year while making chemicals for papermaking and other industries until the adoption of significant hazardous waste disposal regulations.

Orrington is directly upstream of Searsport and Penobscot Bay. Whatever mercury may still be trapped in the river sediment and that has migrated downstream to the bay after all these years should be of concern, and its concentration in various points within the river downstream of the former papermaking facility and in Penobscot Bay should be verified in some capacity as a good faith effort of transparency on the part of the dredging petitioners. There is too much at stake to rely on verbal assurances alone – if there ever was a case of “trust but verify” this would be the poster child.

Here's some more pertinent information on the issue:

The PRMS established that there is a layer of buried inorganic mercury throughout the entire upper Penobscot Bay, down to the southern tip of Islesboro, found generally at a depth of about 20 to 40 cm (8 to 16 inches), attributable to the dumping of mercury by HoltraChem primarily in 1967 to 1970. The Court’s experts concluded that there is no threat to the environment, biota or public health as long as this layer remains buried.

Disturbing buried legacy mercury from HoltraChem through the proposed dredging in Searsport could result in contamination of the entire Penobscot Bay food web, creating an environmental, economic and human crisis in this region and the State of Maine.

Failure to conduct the necessary, updated sediment testing prior to proceeding with this project – even prior to doing the needed maintenance dredging that we support -- could:


  • Directly interfere with the federal court’s oversight of the remediation of HoltraChem mercury

  • Increase the actual, economic, environmental and human costs of the remediation of the HoltraChem mercury contamination

  • Spread methyl mercury contamination to the entire Pen-Bay food web, including the valuable commercial fisheries and aquaculture facilities in this region

  • Damage or destroy the actual and economic viability of the lobster industry in Penobscot Bay, that sustains the Midcoast economy and the more than 2,100 licensed lobstermen

  • Do irreparable harm to the iconic Maine Lobster brand
Dawson & Associates, the nation’s premier expert in federal water resources development, evaluated the Searsport dredging proposal as proposed by the COE and concluded that:

  • A less environmentally damaging, practical, Non-Structural Alternative to the proposed Searsport project exists, involving doing only maintenance dredging in the existing channel to restore the congressionally authorized depth of 35 feet and deepening the dock area to a 45-foot depth, that would accommodate 97 percent of the desired future fleet that the Big Dig and Dump is designed to attract to Searsport

  • Potential mercury contamination of the proposed dredge and dredge disposal sites must be further analyzed before the project moves forward

  • Several of COE’s economic assumptions are questionable and could significantly affect projected cost-benefit ratios

Dawson’s Non-Structural Alternative should be adopted because it achieves 97 percent of the COE’s port improvement goals at no cost to state taxpayers and a fraction of the cost to federal taxpayers, and without inflicting adverse environmental and economic damages on Penobscot Bay and its people. This is the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) – requiring the removal of only 37,100 cubic yards of material in the channel to re-establish the 35-foot authorized depth for this federal navigation project and only about 2-feet to 5-feet of material from the dock after recent maintenance dredging at the docks conducted by Sprague.

All of this material could be disposed upland, not in the Bay, as Sprague did with the material that it dredged in the winter of 2014-2015 at the Mack Point and Searsport docks.

Tucker sums up her frustration over this permit process in this fashion, ‘Why, when they can have the larger ships and the vibrant lobster fishery, are they insisting on the most damaging alternative?”

Speaking on behalf of lobster lovers everywhere, why indeed? Or are all the proponents more concerned with oil profits and the spillover commerce the dredging will produce over the maintaining of a pristine and sustainable fishing industry that is synonymous with Maine?

As of September 8, 2015, according to the Penobscot Bay Blog, the COE and Maine Deptartment of Transportation have withdrawn the water quality certificate application for the Searsport Harbor, Searsport, Maine Federal Navigation Maintenance and Improvement project.

image credits: 1) Flickr/Richard Wood 2) Flickr/Ted Van Pelt 3) Flickr/Alec Perkins

Gabriele Crognale, P.E., is an environmental practitioner with over 40 years in the field, and author specializing in hot-topic environmental and social issues. His signature work is Environmental Management Strategies: The 21st Century Perspective, published by Prentice-Hall.

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