March 18, 2010

Pier, wharf owners propose solution to sediment buildup


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Staff photo by Doug Jones Monday, December 31 2007: Ian Mayo, stands in a few inches of water, 40 feet from shore, shortly before low tide next to Sturdivants wharf. Doug Mayo who owns the wharf, along with other inner harbor owners are seeking a solution to silt migration making their slips too shallow to use. When Portland's next dredging operation takes place in 2010, they want to be positioned to piggy-back on the work to get dredging in areas near their piers.

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Staff photo by Doug Jones Monday, December 31 2007: Jon Kachmar, Chairman of Portland Harbor Commission, stands at the end of Sturdivant's Wharf on the Portland waterfront to discuss the process for applications for dredging areas like this when Portland's next dredging operation takes place in 2010. Pier owners want to be positioned to piggy-back on the work to get dredging in areas near their piers.

Staff Writer

Portland's working waterfront, which has faced threats from condominium development and the collapse of the groundfishing industry, is now jeopardized by silt.

So much silt has accumulated over the decades that fishing boats at some of the city's wharves now rest in mud at low tide.

It's a costly problem. Some of the berths haven't been dredged in more than a century, and much of the sediment is too polluted to be dumped at sea. The other option -- burying the sediment on land -- is prohibitively expensive.

A group of people with interests in the waterfront says the solution is to dig a large hole in Portland Harbor's main shipping channel and dump the sediment into it.

''It's like burying a body,'' said Jeff Monroe, the city's ports and transportation director. ''You dig the hole, put the coffin in, fill it in, and then you take the excess and put it somewhere.''

Officials believe the time to dig the hole is 2010, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to undertake a $10 million project to dredge the harbor's main channel, the first such project since 1998-99, when 800,000 cubic yards were removed.

Sediment from the channel is clean enough to be dumped several miles off the Maine coast.

Although the federal government won't pay for dredging near the shore, Portland's project would ''piggyback'' on the federal effort to produce savings, said Jon Kachmar, head of the Portland Harbor Commission and chairman of the Portland Harbor Dredge Committee.

The Dredge Committee must decide within 90 days whether it wants to ask the Army Corps of Engineers to include its proposal in the project's application for regulatory approval, Kachmar said.

The Dredge Committee is a subcommittee of the Waterfront Alliance, a group that includes government officials and business owners from Portland and South Portland.

It wants to dig a disposal hole in the ocean floor -- a ''contained aquatic disposal cell'' -- for as much as 300,000 cubic yards, the equivalent of a 5-yard-deep layer of sediment on 12 football fields.

At least 100,000 cubic yards would come from dredging associated with two city-owned piers, the Maine State Pier and the pier at the Ocean Gateway passenger terminal.

Developed in the late 1990s, contained aquatic disposal cells have proven successful in other harbors, including Boston and Providence, R.I., said Tom Fredette, who monitors dredge disposal areas for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The bigger problem, Kachmar said, is raising the estimated $3 million it would cost to dig one.

The group is looking at a second option: burying the sediment near shore and creating new land.

Monroe has proposed putting the sediment east of the Ocean Gateway terminal, an area cluttered with more than 1,000 old pilings, remnants of the Grand Trunk Railroad and grain piers.

Kachmar said Monroe's plan would save money but it is less probable because it would face substantial regulatory hurdles.

The Dredge Committee expects the private piers' owners to help pay for the dredging. It also plans to ask for city and state funding.

In Providence, the state provided the money to dig the cell, then charged fees to those who used it.

Doug Mayo, who owns Sturdivants Wharf in Portland, said he can't afford to dredge his property on his own.

The wharf's berths are so shallow that only six vessels at the far end of the wharf can tie up. On Monday, the keel of one fishing trawler was in mud.

Mayo said he needs to remove 20,000 cubic yards of sediment. He said that disposing of it on land would cost $50 a yard, not including trucking. Just testing the sediment for contaminants would cost $80,000.

The Dredging Committee's plan would assume that all of the sediment is contaminated, eliminating the need for expensive testing.

Disposal fees for the contained aquatic disposal cell have not been calculated, but they are expected to be considerably less than the cost of dumping sediment on land.

''This would be a godsend for everybody,'' Mayo said of the proposal.

He said many pier owners can't afford to dredge their berths because city zoning that restricts commercial development has reduced the income that pier owners can generate.

But the proposal faces political hurdles, said Richard Ingalls, a member of the Dredging Committee.

The Legislature historically has not been eager to help Portland, he said, and the constituency for the dredging project is small -- there are about 20 owners of the piers and wharves.

In the past, he said, dredging has raised opposition among lobstermen, some environmentalists and the owners of waterfront properties. That's why the committee has proposed burying sediment in the main shipping channel, which has been disturbed by previous dredging projects, rather than elsewhere in Casco Bay.

''There is no active opposition, but we know they are lurking out there,'' Ingalls said.

Many lobstermen will have mixed feelings about the dredging plan, said Jeff Adams, a lobsterman who ties up at Union Wharf.

Adams said the dredging would make it easier for him to access storage areas of Union Wharf that are now off limits except at high tide.

But he and other fishermen worry that transporting contaminated sediment to the main channel -- Casco Bay's prime lobster habitat — would harm lobsters.

''It's going to help us,'' he said, ''and it could potentially hurt us.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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