March 4, 2010

Spill fine yielding funds for projects

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

A record-setting fine for oil dumping off the coast of Maine and several other states is about to turn into a $1.9 million windfall for coastal protection and restoration efforts.

Money from the 2006 criminal case has been awarded to 14 projects as part of an unusual community service payment. The selected projects include saving seabird habitat; expanding wildlife refuges; restoring fish runs, and cleaning up derelict lobster traps that litter the ocean floor.

The grants will be announced today in Portland by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Coast Guard, two agencies that helped lead the criminal investigation.

''This is the first time that there has been, as part of a plea agreement, an order for what we call community restitution,'' said Paula D. Silsby, U.S. attorney in Maine. ''It's a very, very positive thing, in our view, to come out of a criminal investigation.''

Overseas Shipholding Group, owner of one of the world's largest fleets of oil tankers, pleaded guilty nearly three years ago to repeatedly dumping waste oil into the ocean off Maine, California, Texas and other coastal states. It agreed to pay a $37 million fine, the largest criminal penalty of its kind.

About $9 million of the penalty went into a fund to support environmental projects in the affected states as compensation for the damage. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Congress to award conservation grants, has been reviewing applications for the money with help from experts in Maine.

''Some of the resources that may have been affected by oil discharges at sea in the Gulf of Maine, including seabirds and fisheries will benefit,'' said Stewart Fefer, project leader for the Gulf of Maine Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 14 grants range from $255,000 for a study of alewife populations in the Gulf of Maine to $18,500 to restore fish runs in two coastal streams. The grants will be matched by an estimated $3.4 million in other funds, according to the federal agencies.

The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, for example, will receive a $200,000 grant to retrieve derelict lobster traps that have accumulated in some coastal waters.

The organization hopes to enlist lobstermen in selected harbors to help find and recover the so-called ghost traps. Researchers will examine the recovered gear to see what effect it is having on lobster populations.

Laura Ludwig, project manager for the foundation, said the first-of-its kind project could lead to more extensive cleanup efforts.

Another $200,000 grant will help buy and protect one of the largest remaining undeveloped coastal properties in southern Maine.

The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and conservation groups hope to raise a total of $7 million to buy Timber Point, a 110-acre peninsula, and Timber Island, a 13-acre island, near Goose Rocks Beach in Biddeford. The land, considered valuable habitat for seabirds and migratory birds, would be added to the refuge.

''Because of its location, kind of sticking out in the bay, it's a great stopover point,'' said Wolfe Tone, Maine's state director of The Trust for Public Land. ''It's just got this great diversity of migratory birds.''

And, Tone said, given the tight supply of public funding for conservation, receiving money from the pollution case is a big boost for the project. ''We've been watching this grant for a long time.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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