Opponents of a Maine DOT-devised plan to partition Penobscot Bay's Sears Island into a port zone and a protected zone said that they will contest today's approval of a controversial conservation easement by the Baldacci Administration.
Because the easement is a Final Agency Rule, those seeking to overturn the rule have thirty days to bring suit before state or federal court.
"Sears Island will not be dismembered," said Ron Huber, executive director of Penobscot Bay Watch. "The final rule is based on false and misleading information, purposely fed to both MDOT's Sears Island Joint Use Planning Committee, and to the members of the Legislature's Transportation Committee*. Garbage in/garbage out. It won't hold up to judicial scrutiny."
* Under Public Law 277 the Maine Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation has authority to review all Sears Island development proposals. After the committee reviewed the Joint Use Plan on November 18, 2008 and in December, Transportation Committee co-chair Dennis Damon who had promised on June 26, '08 to bring the Sears Island issue before the legislature's Marine Resources Committee, declined to do so.
Instead, brushing aside concerns from new legislators on the Transportation Committee, and refusing to allow Sears Island fishery concerns to be brought up before the Marine Resources Committee on January 14th (the Senator co-chairs that committee, too) , Damon shoved approval of the Joint Use Plan (15 minute mp3) through on January 15, 2009: in the process dealing a tremendous slap in the face to Midcoast groundfishermen struggling to keep their industry alive in the current ecomoic climate.
Huber said his group and others have worked with many others to restore Penobscot Bay's finfisheries and shellfisheries.
"The chronic pollution and permanent destruction of groundfish nursery habitat and salmon habitat in the upper bay that a container port on Sears Island would make it far less likely that the bay's cod, haddock and flounder will make a comback in our lifetime.
In addition, 'smolts', young Atlantic salmon transitioning from freshwater to saltwater life, gather in the shallow brackish protected waters near Sears Island while they morph from being fresh to saltwater breathing. These too will find their essential nearshore habitat destroyed or fouled with ballast water, bilge and other tainted runoff from a functioning container port. The same holds true for Penobscot River's sturgeon
The groups will ask that the MDOT's Final Order partitioning the island into conservation zone and port zone be set aside, and that Maine DOT be made to carry out and pass an environmental review as required under federal and state law before moving ahead with any partition plan
Penobscot Bay Watch is part of a larger regional coalition, Fair Play for Sears Island, which will take part in the expected litigation. "This is not the first time we've fought off a Sears Island proposal, said Harlan McLaughlan, director of Fair Play for Sears Island, "but we hope it will be the last."
At issue is whether Maine DOT and its Joint Use Planning Committee (JUPC) erred when they declined during their two years of deliberations to consider the environmental damage a container port might have on the island's and bay's natural marine resources. The agency claimed its JUPC group, which operated as a state rulemaking consensus process could voluntarily exempt itself from having to consider the potential environmental impacts of their evolving plan.
Critics say this contravenes the Sensible Transportation Policy Act (STPA), Maine's key transportation law. STPA warns that MDOT's decisions on transportation plans (like Sears Island) can: "have profound, long-lasting and sometimes detrimental impacts on the natural resources of the State, including its air quality, land and water."
Becuase of that concern, in its rules, STPA "requires that MaineDOT identify and develop strategies that are context sensitive and minimize adverse affects to environmental quality."
"Evidently Commissioner Cole forgot to look at his rulebook," Huber said. "Now we'll have to have a judge 'throw the book at him'.
Baldacci/Cole plan goes against Legal Precedent. The January 22 2009 decisions also run MDOT afoul of established federal Sears Island legal precedent. Consider the 1989 federal court case Sierra Club v. Marsh (pdf), 1989 US App (1st) 75 - a critical Sears island precedent case.
In his decision, then-1st Circuit Chief Judge Breyer wrote thusly about the folly of MDOT's planning process playing down the likely harm a port on Sears Island could have:
"..... the harm consists of the added risk to the environment that takes place when governmental decisionmakers make up their minds without having before them an analysis (with prior public comment) of the likely effects of their decision upon the environment."
Breyer held that decisions about Sears Island need to be made in
"...a process whereby administrators make important decisions with an informed awareness of how the decision might significantly affect the environment."
But Maine DOT and its Joint Use Planning Committee have done just the opposite. Wouldn't Judge Breyer - now a US Supreme Court justice - be disappointed to learn of Maine DOT's repeat of its 1980s blunder?
Huber said he is not surprised by the Baldacci Administration's machinations. "When it comes to Sears Island, Maine's government has a sad history of ignoring economic and ecological reality, and of skirting or outright ignoring the law." he said.
In 1995, facing certain denial of his cargo port plan for environmental reasons, Governor Angus King and members of the Maine congressional delegation infamously pressured EPA's regional administrator into agreeing to transfer the EPA's staff reviewing Sears Island off the Sears Island port plan review.
When he learned of King's plot, Huber notified legal advocacy organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed a lawsuit that forced the EPA administrator to reverse his decision and keep the staff on the job. Once the EPA official backed down, PEER withdrew its suit, the staffer returned to work and, based on her recommendations, the US Army Corp of Engineers set stiff requirements for mitigating the damage the port would cause to island and bay. Unable to foot the bill, Angus King withdrew his Sears Island port plan in early 1996. (short mp3)
Huber said he was not surprised that Maine DOT didn't seek a review of their plan by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "DMR kowtowed completely to the port proponents under King" he said.
In October 1995, then-DMR Commissioner Robin Alden submitted a controversial letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and FHWA that pooh-poohed the value of Sears Island's shoals and eelgrass meadows as fish habitat, earning her a rebuke from federal officials as well as New England's marine science community - including one of the scientists she quoted in her letter.
Steve Miller of the Islesboro Islands Trust wrote in a letter to Commissioner Alden that his "initial reaction ranged from disbelief to horror.. .your letter seemed more like a defense of the cargo port than a discussion of natural resources and their preservation."
Ironically, Miller is now himself committed to port development on Sears Island, as a consensing member of the Joint Use Planning Committee, a decision that has put him at odds with many former allies.
""We likewise reacted with disbelief and horror, when we learned that Steve Miller had joined the dark side", McLaughlan said. "Go figure."
Perhaps mindful of Alden's debacle, present day Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe has kept mum.
"Hopefully something will finally penetrate MDOT's leaders' thick skulls", said Mclaughlan. "Their brains always turn to mush when Sears Island gets put on their to-do list."
Below: Governor Baldacci's January 2 press release (includes full text of governor's executive order)
January 22, 2009
An Order Implementing the Recommendations of the Sears Island Planning Initiative's Joint Use Planning Committee
WHEREAS, the State of Maine is dedicated to preserving its historic coastline while providing economic opportunities to its citizens that its proximity to navigable waters offer; and
WHEREAS, the State of Maine owns Sears Island in the Town of Searsport, County of Waldo, where both of these goals can be compatibly and responsibly pursued; and
WHEREAS, Sears Island lies centrally on Maine's largest bay, Penobscot Bay, which has seaports, manufacturing centers, farms, rocky headlands and well over 100 islands on its waters and shores. The Bay, which serves as the economic domain of a thousand or more working fishing and lobster boats, includes a major shipping channel, and is a recreational and ecological location of world class standing; and
WHEREAS, Sears Island located in the harbor of Searsport is uniquely suited, through its deep water ship access and its rail connection allowing double stacked rail cars to travel unabated from Searsport to Chicago, to be the location of a future freight container port; and
WHEREAS, Maine's future economy will be strengthened by the inclusion of Sears Island in the global freight transportation routes; and
WHEREAS, the parties to the Consensus Agreement, that created the Joint Use Planning Committee, shared a good faith belief that opportunities to pursue a port and conservation uses were compatible and should be given equal weight and attention and should all be vigorously pursued ; and
WHEREAS, the Sears Island Planning Initiative Consensus Agreement established that the appropriate uses for Sears Island are compatibly managed marine transportation, recreation, education, and conservation, therefore, the joint use planning process defined two significant land use parcels on the Island, a 601-acre conservation parcel known as the "Protected Property" and a 330-acre "Transportation Parcel", for the benefit of the Town of Searsport, County of Waldo and the State of Maine; and
WHEREAS, Sears Island Planning Initiative Consensus Agreement established that the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) will actively market, solicit proposals and create partnerships for a cargo/container port on Mack Point and/or Sears Island on the Transportation Parcel; and
WHEREAS, Sears Island Planning Initiative Consensus Agreement established that the MaineDOT, with the Town of Searsport and appropriate others will provide for light recreation, education and conservation facilities on the Protected Property by conveyance of an easement covering that area; and
WHEREAS, the Final Report and Recommendations for Implementation of the Sears Island Planning Initiative Joint Use Planning Committee, prepared pursuant to the Sears Island Planning Initiative Steering Committee Consensus Agreement has been presented to and approved by the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation of the Maine Legislature in accordance with Maine Public Law 2005, Chapter 277;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, John E. Baldacci, Governor of the State of Maine, do hereby order and direct as follows:
The Maine Department of Transportation will in all respects implement the recommendations of the Sears Island Planning Initiative's Joint Use Planning Committee.
o MaineDOT, as Grantor, will grant a Conservation Easement on a 601-acre conservation parcel known as the Protected Property on Sears Island to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Holder, with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as the Third Party Enforcer.
o MaineDOT will fix the boundaries of the Transportation Parcel and the Protected Property as determined by the Joint Use Planning Committee and defined in the Conservation Easement.
o The Transportation Parcel is reserved by MaineDOT for future transportation use, allowing for joint or concurrent development of a marine transportation facility, compliant with 23 CFR 774.
o MaineDOT will create a "Sears Island Conservation Area Advisory Group" to provide public input on future land use and guidance to MaineDOT with respect to the management of the Protected Property.
o MaineDOT, upon execution of the Conservation Easement, will actively and aggressively work with the Maine Port Authority and other interested parties to initiate the process of marketing and development of a cargo/container port on Mack Point and Sears Island in accordance with the Agreement including initiating a request for proposals for a cargo/container port facility which will utilize environmentally-responsible technologies to minimize impact to natural resources, cultural values and existing marine activities while creating significant economic opportunity for the citizens of the State of Maine.
The effective date of this Executive Order is January 22, 2009.