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September 29, 2020

New site off Maine coast could make it easier, safer to dredge the state's harbors

marine dredging crane on barge in portland harbor Courtesy / Jay Cashman Inc. In 2014, a Quincy, Mass.-based company, Jay Cashman Inc., performed maintenance dredging of Portland Harbor for the first time since 1999. That project removed 700,000 cubic yards of sediment from the harbor's shipping channel.

A patch of seabed off the coast of Kittery could make it easier to dredge — and ultimately, navigate — southern Maine harbors and channels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Oct. 26 will open a new ocean site for depositing material from federal, state and commercial marine dredging projects. The site replaces one off Cape Arundel that will close next year, according to a notice published Friday in the Federal Register.

The new site comprises a circle 8,350 feet in diameter, about 11 miles southeast of Kittery, in the Isle of Shoals area. Water depths there are about 300 feet.

“This designation allows our federal and state partners and New England marine industries to proceed with projects that are critical to our region’s economic prosperity while reducing impacts on air quality and the marine environment,” EPA New England Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel said in a news release.

“The new Isles of Shoals North site reduces the likelihood of unsafe navigational conditions and potential adverse impacts to marine ecosystems.”

The site will serve projects not only in southern Maine, but along the coasts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Three dredging projects in New Hampshire’s Rye Harbor are scheduled to begin in November and may use the site, according to the release.

The current Cape Arundel site, the only other site in the area, must close at the end of its federally authorized term of use, Dec. 31, 2021. That site was originally designated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and unlike the new disposal area and other EPA-designated sites, does not utilize a management and monitoring plan to prevent health or environmental dangers

That plan includes requirements such as speed limits for disposal vessels to help prevent collisions with whales and other marine life, and notification procedures to alert fishermen when disposal operations will take place, the EPA said.

Dredging up an old issue

Dredging Maine’s coastal waterways is critical for the state’s marine industries, from recreational boating to international shipping. Dredging clears out underwater obstructions and sediment build-up, allowing for safer navigation, more space to berth vessels and greater access to the ocean.

Earlier this month, the Portland Harbor Commission and the cities of Portland and South Portland were rejected in their application for $24 million in federal transportation funds to dredge around piers, wharves and other inshore areas of Portland Harbor.

The project, estimated to cost $30 million overall, would have sent dredged material to a “confined aquatic disposal” cell in Portland Harbor, not offshore.

It's not clear why the proposal was denied funds in the competitive federal BUILD grant program, although some have said the program has increasingly focused on road and bridge projects.

The Portland Harbor proposal had received support from Maine’s congressional delegation and the Maine Lobsterman’s Union, the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Portland Propeller Club, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, and dozens of pier and waterfront property owners.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, in a news release, called the project “a critical transportation need for the continuation of our historic working waterfront.” Officials plan to seek the funds again in 2021, after years of trying to bring the project to life.

Charlie Poole, president of the Proprietors of Union Wharf, said, “We don’t have a choice but to try again. We’ve been talking about dredging and working on dredging for 30 years or so and this problem will not just one day go away, we have to dredge. We’re either in this game or we’re not. If you can’t bring a boat alongside a pier safely, you’re done.”

Portland Harbor has received maintenance dredging in recent years, but there’s been no comprehensive clean-up of the seafloor around piers and wharves in living memory, officials said.

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