May 15, 2008

Sears Island: Why EPA said NO to a port back in the 90s

And why NO is still the right answer. Nothing has changed since then...

On September 29, 1995, John Devillars of US EPA New England wrote to the Federal Highway Administration and to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers about the proposed Sears Island cargo port. Below is the introduction, then the "environmental impacts" section of his letter. (Full letter.)

Dear Mr. Lariviere and Colonel Bradbury:

I am pleased to provide the Environmental Protection Agency's comments on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Maine Department of Transportation's proposal to construct a marine dry cargo terminal on Sears Island in Penobscot Bay. Our comments are in accordance with our responsibilities under three federal environmental laws -- the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act.

Introduction

The Maine Department of Transportation seeks to build a modern, expandable marine cargo terminal on Sears Island, located at Searsport, Maine in Penobscot Bay. For over a decade, Maine has identified this project as one of great importance to the long term economic vitality of the State. At the same time, there are extremely valuable environmental resources at stake. Because of the severity of the environmental harm it would cause, as discussed below, the project as currently proposed cannot receive a Clean Water Act § 404 permit unless it is modified to reduce the impacts through further avoidance and/or development of a mitigation package which would sufficiently compensate for these impacts.

The challenge that lies ahead is to identify practicable ways to further avoid and compensate for the environmental losses so that Maine Department of Transportation can proceed to construct a cargo terminal in mid-coast Maine in an environmentally acceptable manner.

Environmental Impacts

"In evaluating the adverse impacts of this project, I have carefully reviewed the record before me including extensive analysis conducted by EPA marine and wetland biologists, the professional
staff of both the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and numerous informed commenters who have reviewed the DSEIS. Based on that review, I conclude that the impacts on eelgrass, intertidal and subtidal habitat, clamflats, forested wetlands, vernal pools, and streams associated with the Sears Island cargo facility, as currently proposed, are environmentally objectionable, and would cause significant degradation to the aquatic environment.

"This judgment is unequivocally endorsed by both the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"A. Sears Island Alternatives
"The substantial impacts to both marine and freshwater habitats associated with the twelve Sears Island alternatives portrayed in the DSEIS would cause significant degradation to waters of the United States in violation of Section 230.10(c) of the 404(b)(1) guidelines and may result in substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.

The most environmentally damaging impacts associated with the twelve alternatives identified for analysis by MDOT are:

"* Permanent loss of a minimum of 13 acres of highly productive eelgrass beds, and the reduced productivity of up to an additional 80 to 250 acres of eelgrass. Eelgrass loss of this magnitude is unprecedented in New England. To our knowledge, no projects have ever been permitted that have approached this amount of destruction and degradation to submerged aquatic vegetation.

"* Permanent destruction of roughly 16 acres of intertidal habitat. These areas provide habitat for commercially and recreationally important species, including soft-shell clams, mussels, Atlantic salmon, menhaden, winter flounder, and other finfish species. The environmental values of this marine habitat has been recognized by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Moreover, the State of Maine has classified this area as habitat of regional significance to coastal wildlife, and MDOT's own consultant has documented the extremely high productivity of these marine habitats.

"* Fill or pilings placed in a minimum of 12 acres of subtidal habitat. These subtidal areas provide habitat for lobsters, crabs, sea urchins, numerous finfish species, and grey and harbor seals. An additional 34 to 46 acres of subtidal area would be dredged, resulting in a loss of foraging habitat and food resources for lobsters, crabs, sea urchins, grey and harbor seals, menhaden, Atlantic silversides, and other migratory finfish.

"* Outright destruction and total loss of functions of at least 17 acres of freshwater wetlands, up to four vernal pools and almost two-thirds of a mile of stream. Extensive indirect effects would render many of the adjacent wetlands on Sears Island less suitable or uninhabitable by wildlife. These direct and indirect effects would irreparably alter the integrity of this high quality, undisturbed ecosystem. If permitted as proposed, the impacts to freshwater wetlands and waters would be one of the most damaging to wildlife habitat in Maine in the past decade.

"In addition, the proximity of extremely valuable freshwater wetlands, vernal pools, mudflats, saltmarshes, eelgrass beds, and intertidal areas found on Sears Island is unusual. The juxtaposition of these valuable habitats results in a high biodiversity of wildlife species utilizing the island: more than three quarters of all wetland 'dependent mammal species and wetland dependent bird species occurring in this region of Maine have been verified on Sears Island. Construction of the project as proposed would result in substantial loss of ecological diversity, productivity, and stability for these species, and would adversely affect habitat for numerous species considered imperiled by the State, including the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

"EPA believes that the marine impacts are by themselves significant. The Sears Island marine habitats are exceptionally diverse, productive, and valuable to the fisheries resources of both Penobscot Bay and Penobscot River. As noted above, EPA is unaware of any other projects in New England with marine impacts as severe as the Sears Island proposal. The freshwater impacts, while not unprecedented, are unusually severe. No project in our experience would cause the combined harm to valuable marine and freshwater resources that would result from the Sears Island project as currently proposed.

"Given this, the project should not be permitted on Sears Island unless it is modified to reduce these impacts through further avoidance and/or development of a practicable mitigation package which would sufficiently compensate for these impacts."

End of excerpt

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