SEARSPORT — Fearing a threat to the fertile lobster breeding grounds at the heart of Penobscot Bay, fishermen and others called for federal regulators to evaluate the health of a dredge disposal area before more debris is dumped.
About 60 people turned out to a meeting Wednesday night called by Rep. Joe Brooks, D-Winterport, to answer questions about a state plan to dredge part of Searsport harbor and dump the debris at a site halfway between Rockland Harbor and the Fox Island Thoroughfare.
On hand were Rep. John Baldacci, representatives of Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and representatives from the state departments of Transportation, Marine Resources and Environmental Protection.
But most of the questions were directed at Jay Clement and Carl Boutilier of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who must approve the dredge disposal plan. The state DOT is the applicant for the dredge project, which is part of an upgrade of pier facilities at Searsport’s Mack Point. The project must also clear DEP review.
Since 1953, the Army Corps has used the disposal site off Rockland, where 1.3 million cubic yards of dredge debris has been dumped, Boutilier said. The site was last studied in 1989. Another 750,000 cubic yards of dredge debris could be dumped at the site in the next five to 10 years, as the corps plans to dredge parts of the lower and upper Penobscot River, and parts of Belfast, Camden, Rockland and Thomaston harbors.
Peter Jones of the Vinalhaven Lobster Co. told the elected and appointed officials that the disposal area and the waters around it are now a breeding ground for lobster.
“It is the biggest nursery of the North American lobster,” he said of the center of Penobscot Bay. “Your dump site is ground zero. What I’d like to see is [the Rockland site] closed permanently.”
David Black, a Belfast-based lobsterman, handed Baldacci vials containing juvenile lobsters, and asked the Congressman whether he thought the tiny crustaceans would be able to survive thousands of cubic yards of fill being dumped on them.
Earlier, Clement of the Army Corps reported that about half of the composite samples taken at the Mack Point site showed contamination. The corps could turn down the state’s application to dump the dredge debris if it were found to be contaminated, he said.
But Clement and Boutilier also said contaminated debris could be capped with clean fill, or could be used to fill bridge abutments, as it was recently in Portland. The debris can also be dumped on land, though cost and other environmental regulations limit that option.
Further testing is being done on the samples to find where the contamination is concentrated.
Clement and Boutilier also noted that almost all of the dredge debris settles where it is dumped, and that studies have shown it has little affect on marine life.
John Melrose, commissioner of the DOT, disputed the Army Corps numbers. He said of the 25,000 cubic yards to be dredged in the first phase of the project, just 3,600 cubic yards were found to be contaminated.
Melrose said the pier improvements were designed to limit the need to dredge contaminated bottom, with the new piers covering much of the unsuitable area. The first pier to be built covers existing pilings that cause creosote contamination, he said.
In all, DOT wants to dredge 121,000 cubic yards, Melrose said.
Susan Lessard, town manager of Vinalhaven, urged the corps to evaluate the current Rockland disposal area before approving the DOT dredge disposal. Clement and Boutilier said a review of the site was planned for this year, but that another staff member in the corps’ Concord, Mass., office would make that decision.
Baldacci said he planned to meet with Snowe and Collins to ask them to join him in sending a letter to the corps asking for a review of the disposal site before any large-scale dumping is approved. Boutilier said the corps is reluctant to hold up any applicant that is in the review process.
The corps can call for a public hearing on the DOT application. The corps is accepting comments on the application.