May 24, 2020

Sears Island development a terrible plan for the state

Pave over more than a third of Sears Island as a cargo port, with meaningless concessions offered to environmental partners as a necessary condition of the deal? What an appalling idea, and what a dismal example it would set for a state whose leaders are committed to a creative economy and enactment of quality of place standards.

Despite denials from Joint Use Committee members that a port proposal is on the table, anyone can see that groundwork is being laid by Maine Department of Transportation and the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. In an elaborate corporate swindle, a critical federal review for environmental protection is being circumvented, and Sears Island would be subject instead to federal wetlands-mitigation banking guidelines, assuring that permits can be secured for port development. The agreement signed by conservation and pro-port partners of the Sears Island Planning Initiative a year ago states that the proposed 600 acres to be protected can be used as “mitigation … to offset the environmental impact of transportation activities ….”

Mitigation banking has not been tried as yet in New England – a distinction we must work uncompromisingly to keep. Maine land-trust groups in particular should heed the cautionary advice of the whistleblower organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), whose investigations show without exception that the mitigation shell game undermines land-protection efforts.

BDN reporters have ignored the implications of this Faustian bargain, which makes a travesty of the conservation ethic.

On Sept. 21, the BDN reported that “Sears Island wetlands may affect port plans” and that “federal land banking [of the conserved portion of the island] … would free up other land for development.” The intended mitigation banking of Sears Island by Maine DOT is central to the “joint use,” yet your reporters have not explained to readers what this scheme really means and how it would be carried out to facilitate wetlands destruction on the island and elsewhere in the state.

It does not follow that because ship transportation is the most energy efficient, Maine therefore needs another deepwater port, as stated in the BDN editorial of May 30. Look at the underuse of the Eastport and Portland port facilities, and you could well conclude that the need for a third cargo port here has not been established.

As with energy use, states must become less reliant on importing and exporting goods. Buying less and buying local should be the watchword for future economic planning.

Nor should we forget the likelihood of contraband arriving on cargo containers. Who is to say that if a port were located on Sears Island, the causeway would not be closed by the Department of Homeland Security to all uses other than those involving freight handling.

As part of the compromise agreement, the environmental partners have pledged not to oppose a cargo port, except for “substantive” reasons. Given the makeup of the interagency mitigation-review team – state and federal corporate bureaucrats who hold all the power – we can easily anticipate how any objection would be dismissed as “nonsubstantive.” Moreover, it is disingenuous to continue to maintain that Mack Point is a viable option for a container port and must be considered before an island site. Transportation officials consider the buildout of Mack Point impractical: the water there is not deep enough for a port facility.

Many Sierra Club activists, myself among them, do not support the proposed compromise with Maine DOT. A 600-acre “conservation” tract is meaningless if the other 340 acres on Sears Island are blighted by industrial pollution, with heavy ship and truck traffic and railroad lines encircling “protected” areas. We think the membership at large would not endorse it, and we urge them to make their opinions known ( Members of Islesboro Island Trust, Coastal Mountains Land Trust, and Penobscot Bay Alliance should do likewise, deploring plans to construct buildings (10,000-plus square feet) and parking lots on the “conserved” part of the island. And Maine Coast Heritage Trust members are entitled to an explanation of that organization’s role as conservation-easement holder, conveying implicit approval of the deal.

I hope that constituents of Sen. Dennis Damon will send a clear message ( that the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which he co-chairs, does not have a mandate to obliterate marine ecosystems (Damon is also co-chair of the Marine Resources Committee).

Maine DOT has decreed that no formal public hearing is to be held by the Joint Use Committee on the mitigation report, but their autocracy can be challenged.

Jody Spear lives in Harborside.

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