May 22, 2011

Plan to dredge for BIW ship sparks outcry

Foes say silt removal set for August in the Kennebec River would threaten livelihoods near the coast; the Navy says it can't delay its destroyer's departure.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Popham Beach area fishermen, business owners and others are trying to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the Kennebec River during the height of the summer fishing and tourism season.

click image to enlarge

The USS Spruance is due to leave Bath Iron Works in September. The Army Corps of Engineers says its path in the Kennebec River must be fully dredged in August.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

While dredging is normally done in winter, the corps is seeking state and federal permits to remove 70,000 cubic yards of silt from two sections of the river in August. The dredge spoils would be deposited downriver in Phippsburg, and offshore near Seguin Island off Popham Beach.

The corps, which is responsible for keeping federal navigation channels open, says the work is necessary to prevent the USS Spruance, a $1 billion destroyer under construction at Bath Iron Works, from running aground when it leaves in September.

The Navy says speedy delivery of the 510-foot ship is critical to national defense. Opponents say they are seeking a compromise that won't harm the endangered short-nosed sturgeon, Atlantic salmon and other wildlife in the river, or jeopardize the livelihoods of clammers, lobstermen and those involved in the tourist trade.

"They are wiping out the entire bottom habitat, smothering it under a layer of sand. Ecologically, dredging is carpet bombing," said Stephen Hinchman, a West Bath lawyer.

Hinchman represents the town of Phippsburg, the Phippsburg Shellfish Conservation Commission's 40 commercial harvesters, the Phippsburg Land Trust, the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, Friends of Merrymeeting Bay and several Phippsburg residents, who have appealed a conditional permit issued by former state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Darryl Brown. The appeal is one of four filed in the case. They will be decided by the Board of Environmental Protection.

Brown issued the permit earlier this year on the condition that the Legislature reclassify the water quality in sections of the river below BIW where the dredged material will be dumped. The current classification, the highest possible, prohibits the disposal of dredged material.

DEP officials said the sections in question were mistakenly classified at the highest level in the 1990s.

"Our documentation makes it clear to us there was an error," said Susan Davies, water-quality standards coordinator at the DEP.

Lawmakers have yet to act on the reclassification, which is included in an omnibus bill proposing changes to DEP rules.

Opponents say they are not against shipbuilding or dredging, but they question why the corps didn't plan better for the project.

"It is frustrating for us because we know they have to do it, and BIW provides a ton of jobs for our families and friends. But why do we have to do all the sucking it up for poor planning?" said Ethan DeBery, a Phippsburg resident who runs a fishing excursion boat and ferry boat to Seguin Island.

Opponents say they are just asking the corps to take less intrusive steps than the full-fledged dredge the agency is proposing -- the first since 2003 -- to ensure that the Spruance doesn't run aground.

Hinchman said it is possible the channel can be deepened by using a mechanical bucket dredge rather than the proposed hopper dredge, which vacuums up the material. He said the corps could then come back and do the full dredging in the winter.

Bill Kavanaugh, manager of the dredging project, said the corps cannot afford to dredge twice. He said federal funding for maintenance dredging is declining, especially for projects like this one that do not involve commercially important ports. The Kennebec dredging will cost about $1.5 million.

"We are not looking to modify our plan," said Kavanaugh.

He disputed opponents' claims that the dredging would hurt fishing or the environment, saying the corps is required to pursue the least costly environmentally suitable alternative available.

(Continued on page 2)

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