FREEPORT — The Army Corps of Engineers withdrew on Tuesday its state permitting application for a Penobscot Bay dredging project opposed by lobstermen, tourism business owners and environmentalists.

The project aims to improve and upgrade Searsport, Maine’s second-busiest port, by expanding its turning basin and deepening the approach channel from 35 to 40 feet. But the Corps’ plan for disposing of the nearly 1 million cubic yards of dredged material raised alarm bells up and down Penobscot Bay over concerns it would trigger widespread mercury contamination.

In a brief letter sent to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday, Corps project manager Barbara Blumeris said the federal agency was withdrawing its application for the requisite state permits. “We may consider filing a revised application … at a later date,” she wrote.

The letter was signed in concurrence by John Henshaw, director of the Maine Port Authority, an agency of the Maine Department of Transportation, a co-sponsor of the project.

Henshaw said the department remains committed to the project, but that it needed more time to prepare for the public hearing process. “We will use the additional time to further develop the project,” he said by email Tuesday night. “Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, MaineDOT plans to submit an application at a later date.”

Kim Ervin Tucker, an attorney representing lobstermen, small businesspeople and the state chapter of the Sierra Club in proceedings against the project, was pleased by the unexpected development.

“We are very gratified that this threat has been removed for the time being,” she said. “But we will redouble our efforts to make sure that Penobscot Bay is protected from any future similar proposal.”

Resistance to the project has focused primarily on the Corps’ plan for disposing of the dredging spoils, at least some of which it has acknowledged is contaminated with mercury. The Corps wanted to deposit the spoils in the middle of western Penobscot Bay, halfway between Islesboro and Northport, putting them in deep pockmarks on the bottom.

Experts had testified that the pockmarks were actually methane vents, which could result in the material becoming resuspended in the bay, and that the Corps had likely underestimated the degree of contamination in Searsport harbor.

The Maine Port Authority and area pilots have said the improvements to Searsport’s harbor are vital to the port’s long-term viability.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

<URL destination=”mailto:cwoodard%40pressherald.com?subject=Reader%20mail%20RE%3A”>[email protected]

</URL>Twitter:@WoodardColin