From: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 1996 Report.


PEER members can claim victory in one of the Eastern U.S.’s longest and most politically charged environmental enforcement cases. The two-decade battle by the State of Maine to develop Sears Island, one of the largest uninhabited islands on the East Coast, has seemingly come to an end. On February 28, 1996, Governor Angus King (R) of Maine publicly abandoned plans to build an industrial cargo terminal on the 940-acre island located in Penobscot Bay.

At his State House news conference, Governor King angrily blasted environmental opponents of the project (mp3) saying that irresponsible federal employees had “rigged” the review process against the project. Freshman Republican Congressman James Longley threatened to hold hearings targeting the bias of federal agency staff against the proposed terminal. The story of the demise of Sears Island port plan is, in fact, one of courageous Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. F&WS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) employees who repeatedly risked their careers to ensure that environmental laws were followed and violations were prosecuted.

The regulatory history of the Sears Island terminal is a convoluted textbook illustrating virtually every possible method of environmental nonenforcement and evasion. A cargo port was first proposed for Sears Island in 1978. In 1983, the Army Corps of Engineers, without requiring an environmental impact statement (EIS), approved a permit to dredge and fill for the cargo port. The Fish and Wildlife Service requested an EIS and the Sierra Club successfully sued to force one. The resulting final EIS was criticized as inadequate by EPA and U.S. F&WS who asked the Corps to deny the permit. The adequacy of the EIS was litigated from 1988 until 1991 when suddenly the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the discovery of 200 acres of wetlands on the island.

EPA staff spurred a criminal investigation into the possible coverup of the presence of wetlands by Maine DOT and its consultants. In 1992, the U.S. Attorney under pressure from state, congressional and even top EPA figures declined to convene a grand jury on the matter. Belatedly, EPA is seeking civil enforcement against DOT.

The main arena, however, remained the permit approval for the port. The political pressure from the Maine delegation and EPA Headquarters for issuance remained intense. This pressure was felt directly by federal employees from their own politically sensitive (in some cases, hypersensitive) chains of command.

In some instances PEER legal intervention prevented key personnel from being reassigned away from the Sears Island case. The resource staff of these agencies refused, despite sometimes furious political pressure, to let their own politically appointed managers shirk their legal responsibilities.

These efforts paid off. On September 29, 1995, all three federal resource agencies issued a joint Sears Island evaluation finding that “the impact would cause significant degradation of waters of the United States in violation of the Clean Water Act.” By February, the Corps of Engineers concurred with that position. Once the State of Maine had time to fully explore the mitigation conditions which would be required by this combined federal stance, state officials concluded that the terminal “no longer makes economic sense.”

Governor King would not declare the project dead, instead saying “it’s taking a long nap right now.” PEER salutes the conscientious federal employees whose anonymous efforts roused slumbering, compliant agencies to finally do their job.