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Searsport Dredging Plan Raises Concerns
11/04/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is facing renewed pressure to do a more in-depth, environmental impact study of a long-planned dredging project off Searsport Harbor. More than 900,000 cubic yards of sediment would be removed from the channel off Mack Point, so oil tankers and other cargo ships can load and unload without having to wait on the tides. In a report back in the spring, the Army Corp said the project would have minimal impact on the surrounding marine environment. But as Jay Field reports, federal fishery biologists, the lobster industry and environmental groups say the corps failed to address key concerns about the project.

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Federal law says that engineers and fishery biologists need to work together on dredging projects. So before the Army Corp of Engineers made it's environmental impact report public last spring, Michael Johnson went through the document line by line. Johnson is a fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Our review of that EA, or environmental assessment, was that some of the aspects of the impacts that were expected to occur were not discussed," Johnson says.

Of particular concern, says Johnson, is the anticipated loss of shallow water habitat in the dredging zone. "It's a juvenile habitat. It's a nursery area for many species," he says. "In particular, winter flounder use that shallow water habitat to lay their eggs and spawn. They use that shallow water for feeding, for refuge from predation from larger fish."

Johnson laid out his agency's concerns in a letter back in the spring. In its response in August, the Army Corps revealed that the dredging impacts on shallow water habitat would be even greater than first throught. Johnson says the National Marine Fisheries Service needs the corps to come up with a more detailed plan for protecting winter flounder and other species that reuly on shallow water.

The dredging project, meantime, is also creating unease in the lobster industry.

"The main concern always becomes the dredging site itself," says Patrick Keliher, the man who manages Maine's lucrative lobster fishery. Keliher says he's also heard from lobstermen, who worry about where all that dredged material from the ocean floor will be dumped.

Keliher is commissioner of the Department fo Marine Resources. Plans call for more than 900,000 cubic yards of sediment to be dumped at a disposal site off Islesboro or Rockland. "As lobsters move in and off shore, the dumping site could be a place that has an adverse impact," he says.

Keliher says his department is likely to hold a public hearing on the project. Worries over what the project could do to the lobster fishery, meantime, has Maine lawmakers poised to weigh in.

"For me personally, I'm not opposed to dredging," says Walter Kumiega, a Deer Isle Democrat who represents District 36 in the Maine House. "I think this just goes so far above and beyond what the normal maintenance dredging is that we need to take a more careful look at what's going to happen."

Kumiega has written a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Enginners, asking the agency to go back to the drawing board and do a more comprehensive study of the environmental impacts of dredging off Searsport.

On Wednesday, Kumiega and fellow lawmakers will publicly make the same demand at a press conference on the waterfront in Belfast. A call and email to the Army Corps of Engineers, seeking comment for this story, were not returned by airtime.



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