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From: Northern Forest Forum, Spring Edition 1996

Upset in Maine: Sears Island Cargoport goes down the tubes
by Ron Huber

In a stunning victory for the Northern Forest and Gulf of Maine, on February 28, 1996 the Maine state government threw in the towel on its two decade-long effort to build a publicly subsidized woodchip and container freight port on Sears Island in upper Penobscot Bay. The port would have been used by Champion International, Bowater and other industrial forest owners to export up to one million tons of chipped Maine hardwoods to mills in Asia and Europe each year, and would have promoted urban and industrial growth in this lightly developed region of midcoast Maine.

Environmental advocates and federal natural resource agencies proved to the satisfaction of the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) that the Maine Dept of Transportation's final, "least environmentally damaging alternative" would still cause severe damage to Penobscot Bay's estuarine ecosystem, and that a comprehensive mitigation package to fully compensate the public for lost fish nurseries and shellfish habitat would be required. The minimum cost for such a package took the already soaring price tag for the port to nearly 100 million dollars.

Facing a legislature reluctant to float such a massive bond issue before the Maine electorate this November, Governor King made a last ditch appeal to industrial forest owners to shoulder some of the financial burden. Rebuffed, on February 28th, he ordered the application withdrawn, terminating the. state and federal permitting actions in midstride, telling surprised reporters at a hastily called press conference that the project cost "has now basically gotten out of control."

King heaped blame on the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups for "rigging the process. ..The environmental issues raised in connection with this project have never passed the straight-face test." "Eeeeeelgrass!" he exclaimed to the cameras and microphones, drawing the word out in exasperated mockery. "And not only that, SHADED eelgrass!"

And indeed, this slender subtidal flowering plant was the straw that finally broke the port project's back. In the Gulf of Maine, eelgrass meadows occur offshore sheltered shorelines at depths from 5 to 15 feet below the low tide line. They are prime juvenile habitat for coastal populations of large predators like Atlantic cod, striped bass, haddock and winter flounder, due both to the abundance of prey species that co-habit eelgrass meadows, as well as to the cover that it provides them against storms and adult predators, including seals and dogfish, the 2-3 foot long sharks that travel the Gulf of Maine in schools of tens of thousands.

Ducks and geese feed on eelgrass as well. Dead eelgrass fronds wash ashore, forming windrows of decaying wrack along the tideland that provide essential food and cover for a host of tiny crustaceans that shorebirds feed on.

But eelgrass declined catastrophically on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s following the onset of a microbial "wasting disease" that in the course of three years destroyed more than 90% of the eelgrass on both sides of the Atlantic. The effect on waterfowl, fish and shellfish was devastating. Eelgrass dependent Brant geese fell by 90%. Bay scallops, which use eel-grass as a larval settling surface and as adult cover, dropped precipitously in number. Inshore schools of cod and winter flounder and dozens of other fish species lost their protective and foraging habitat as well.

While it partially recovered, in 1983, eeIgrass in the Gulf of Maine began dying off again, disappearing completely from the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts within two years. Maine's bays presently do not support commercial finfisheries, due in strong measure to declines in this critical juvenile fish habitat.

Agencies Act to Protect Eelgrass
Given eelgrass's acknowledged role in the ecological scheme of things, the Office of Habitat Protection of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) vigorously opposes all development projects that would significantly reduce already scarce eelgrass in New England. NMFS' habitat staff in its Gloucester office exhaustively reviewed the Sears Island project and, strongly seconded by grassroots activists, urged the Army Corps of Engineers last September to deny the state a Clean. Water Act Section 404 permit to destroy and degrade the eelgrass meadows at the port site, located at the middle of the western, sheltered shore of Sears Island.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service and EPA concurred, bringing up as well their position that the effects of woodchip export-oriented logging on freshwater wetlands throughout the Maine Woods should be reviewed under the NEPA process as a significant secondary impact.

In October 1995, Maine's Commissioners of Inland Fish & Wildlife and Marine Resources responded with letters to the Corps strongly disputing the findings of federal resource agencies. The letters were widely viewed as so baldly partisan towards the project that they drew a rebuke from the Corps, which bluntly called the state agency's arguments (that the natural resources at risk were common and the impacts insignificant or unknowable). "misinterpretations of Federal regulations and policy."

The state was told to significantly reduce marine and other impacts before submitting.their final proposal. This request led to the aforementioned "Least Environmentally Damaging Alternative" which perched the port's wharf on pilings above the eelgrass.

Expensive Mitigation Plan
In a final federal-state interagency meeting in late February of this year, representatives of the governor and Maine's Dept of Transportation learned from EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers the magnitude of mitigation that the state would be required to carry out to compensate for the projected direct and indirect cumulative damage to Penobscot Bay.

The federal agencies said the state's compensation proposal, which focused on preserving three-quarters of Sears Island as a state park, would only compensate for the port development's destruction of freshwater wetlands and the fragmenting of forest interior dwelling bird habitat on the island.

It was noted that eelgrass, like other photosynthetic plants, needs sunlight and would likely not survive in darkness or deep shade underneath the eight-acre wharf, pilings or not.

The federal agencies told the state that these losses and other direct and indirect impacts to Penobscot Bay, including alien species introductions through ballast water discharge by woodchip-loading bulk carrier ships from Asia, would have to be fully compensated for, as well as harm to Penobscot Bay's water quality from regional growth around the new port. Eelgrass replacement runs to more than $100,000 per acre, and the cost of mitigating most other marine impacts was unknown.

Twenty-five woodchip ships per year would have collectively discharged 175,000,000 gallons of plankton-rich ballast water from their home ports into Penobscot Bay, with unpredictable consequences.

It became evident that the project's cost would rise well above the state's admitted affordability threshold of $70 million, triggering the scrapping of the proposal.

Opposition to Port
Opposition to the port spanned a wide spectrum, from organized labor and Earth First! to Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation and a variety of citizens and grassroots groups.

Regional land trusts, including the Isleboro Island Trust, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and Vinalhaven Land Trust, opposed the port en masse. Noticeably silent during the fray were the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon Society and the Rockland, Maine-based Island Institute (no relation to Earth Island Institute).

While NRCM cited an already full advocacy caseload, the board of directors of the Island Institute, ostensibly dedicated to the stewardship of Maine's coastal islands and their natural and human communities, oddly voted not to take a stand on Maine's biggest-ever coastal island controversy.

Citizens' groups on the other hand, loudly opposed the Sears Island port, sponsoring public debates, organizing marches and demonstrations, disrupting the proceedings at the official public hearing on the project, and bombarding the media with press releases, op-eds and letters.

Persistent use of the Freedom of Information Act by Maine Green Julian Holmes brought forth a steady stream of internal memos, electronic mail and interagency letters from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Highway Administration (federal cosponsor of the port project).

Unveilng the bitter struggle between state and federal agencies, the FOIA'd info was rapidly dispersed to activists and Maine journalists, helping dispel the rosy public relations smokescreen being laid on by port proponents, and giving formal intervenors like the Coastal Waters Project, Coalition for Sensible Energy, Isleboro Island Trust and others a clear view of the fine points of the behind the scenes regulatory process between the opposing agency camps.

With a Sears Island port no longer an option, attention has turned to the thorny question of whether efforts should be made to expand Mack Point, a small existing industrial port across Penobscot Bay from Sears Island, to make it possible for modern bulk cargo and container carriers, including woodchip ships, to tie up there. Present facilities on Penobscot Bay are. too small to accommodate these ships.

While Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Agency both support this option, serious concerns remain about the long-term impacts of ballast water-discharging bulk carrier vessels at all, wherever they dock. Estuaries around the globe with wood-chip export terminals are experiencing fishkills, toxic red tides and other ecological disruptions.

In addition, because the state withdrew its proposal before the Army Corps of Engineers could rule on whether the National Environmental Policy Act required the state to examine the impacts to the Northern Forest of port-induced export oriented logging, this key question remain&unanswered.

At the end of March. Governor King proposed that Maine acquire Sears Island in the hopes that a Republican president and congress would someday relax agency objections to the cargoport development. He proposed to pay for the acquisition by a $4.5 million bond.

Environmentalists suggested that the state consider protecting the ecological integrity of the island instead of chasing further development fantasies. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, state and federal permits are in, and construction is underway, on an expansion of the New Hampshire state docks in Portsmouth. The enlargement will allow the servicing of bulk carrier vessels, very possibly including woodchip ships. If so, then the Maine Woods may shortly be threatened with wholesale export through there, rather than mid-coast Maine, and the Great Bay will be at risk of ballast discharge-related degradation.

Ron Huber directs the Coastal Waters Project of the Northern Appalachian Restoration Project. He has chronlded the Sears Island drama for three years in the pages of the Forum and is one of the heroes of this successful collaboration between mainstream groups and grassroots activists to defend the biological integrity of the upper Penobscot Bay. He can be reached at: CWP 418 Main Street, Rockland ME 04841. 207-594-5717.

Background: of the Proposed Wharf Construction Upon the Nearshore Environment at Sears Island"