Legislation to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Kennebec River and dump the materials offshore near Popham Beach has been signed into law.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the emergency legislation, L.D. 1398, on Friday after it was approved by the House and Senate. The law, which took effect immediately, means that dredging can be done in early August, during the height of the tourist season and commercial fishing along the Kennebec.

The Corps says the river’s navigation channel must be dredged to allow the Navy destroyer USS Spruance to safely leave Bath Iron Works, where it is undergoing final revisions. The Navy has said that speedy delivery of the ship is critical to national defense. The ship is scheduled to leave BIW on Sept. 1.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the bill was thoroughly reviewed by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee and by the House and Senate, which passed it without debate.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 12-1 to recommend passage.

“There was real concern among legislators about the impact on fishing, but those concerns did not outweigh the necessity for the Navy to get its destroyer out of Bath safely,” said Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Old Town, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

The dredging project will likely begin Aug. 1 unless an appeal filed by the town of Phippsburg, its commercial clam harvesters, the Phippsburg Land Trust, the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust and the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay is upheld by the state Board of Environmental Protection.

Proponents say the legislation makes a long-overdue correction to state water quality standards. The river’s water quality classification, before Friday, would not have permitted dredging.

“From the department’s perspective, we feel that our own historical records support that this portion of the Kennebec was originally supposed to be cleared for dredging,” said Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

But opponents say the dredging should have been done last winter, not in August, when boating, recreational and commercial fishing, and clam digging reaches its peak in Phippsburg.

Steve Hinchman, an attorney in West Bath who represents Phippsburg’s interests, said the disposal site will be less than a half-mile from the shore of Popham Beach.

“The disposal site will be peppered with lobster traps in August. It’s going to become ground zero for the dredging project,” Hinchman said.

He said the project has the potential to devastate commercial fishing and clamming along the Kennebec River in Phippsburg, and disrupt tourist activities such as boating and fishing.

“In 22 years, the state has never issued a permit to dredge the Kennebec River in the summer months,” Hinchman said. “It’s a 180-degree reversal of the position taken by every other governor (before LePage).”

Shellfish harvesters are concerned that dredged materials will settle on clam flats, making it difficult for them to dig. It could also kill juvenile clams, they say.

Duchesne, the state legislator, said Hinchman could not provide scientific evidence that would justify his concerns. He said the state Department of Marine Resources has agreed to monitor the project.

In April, the DEP issued a permit to the Corps to allow it to dredge the Kennebec River in August.

About a month later, Hinchman filed an appeal with the state. DePoy-Warren said the appeal could be heard in July by the Board of Environmental Protection.

She said Hinchman’s pending appeal doesn’t stay the permit that was issued by the DEP.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]