The Port of Searsport and the Mack Point Industrial zone
The Port of Searsport and the Mack Point Industrial zone
Maine voters will be deciding on five bond issues in November, including Question 4, a $51.5 million bond that would fund road and bridge improvements and improvements to buses and airports and provide funds for medical LifeFlight evacuations. It also includes $3 million for dredging (to be matched with $10 million in federal funds) and $2 million for port-side equipment at Mack Point (with a $2 million match in private funds).

Mack Point is the largest deepwater commercial port north of Portland and efforts to increase shipping both to and out of the port have been under way for over a decade.

The dredging project, which has been in the planning phase since 2000, is designed to reclaim the original 35-foot depth (at mean low tide) of the approach channel to the port and potentially to deepen it to 40 feet.

The 35-foot depth was established in 1964. Since then, siltation has filled in the channel so that the current navigable depth is 32 feet (at mean low tide), which means that fully loaded ships are only able to approach the dock at high tide and have limited room to navigate in the channel.

A state-owned dry cargo pier was built at Mack Point in 2004. The port-side equipment will be used to load dry goods, primarily wood pellets, onto ships, and the private funding match will come from Sprague Energy, according to Jim Therriault, vice president at Sprague.

Dredging at Mack Point in the works since 2000

In 2000, the Maine Legislature passed a resolution calling for a study of Searsport Harbor by the Army Corps of Engineers that would look at deepening the existing shipping channel to the Mack Point docks, with the intention of increasing shipping activity at the port.

In 2004, the Army Corps completed the initial study of the project.

In 2006, cultural and geology studies were concluded, followed by subsurface and sediment studies in 2007.

In 2007, an Army Corps feasibility plan was released describing the project, which suggested increasing the depth to 40 feet (at mean low tide). In 2012, the feasibility report was completed, including estimated project costs, economic benefits and the environmental assessment.

According to Tim Dugan, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers/New England District, a public review of the study will be held in December 2012, at the earliest. No date is scheduled at this time. When asked, he said the Army Corps review, which has taken years, is not tied into the fall 2012 elections.

Therriault, of Sprague Energy, said channel siltation has led to delays in offloading products and kept some ships from choosing the port of Searsport to offload.

"This dredge has been in the works long before DCP ever entered the area and is necessary just to continue as a viable port," he said.

"The problem is that the channel is silting in, requiring the vessels to travel up to the dock at high tide if they are loaded to the capacity of our docks," said Therriault. "That has resulted in delays as vessels need to wait . . . for the tides to change. If (the vessel) . . . gets to the anchorage just a little late it may need to wait for a full tide reversal."

"The channel is filling in so much that it may impact ships trying to move in even at high tide," he said. "Without dredging, all ships would eventually need to be light-loaded, resulting in higher transportation costs for all our energy products including gasoline and diesel fuel."

"What has also happened in the past 20 years is a bigger push towards safety," said David Gelinas of the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association. Gelinas has been boarding cargo ships and professionally piloting them up Penobscot Bay and up the Penobscot River for decades.

Twenty years ago, shipping companies only looked for two feet of clearance between the bottom of the ship's keel and the bottom of the shipping channel.

"Now, they are looking for a meter or more," said Gelinas.

"At the very least, we need to maintain a dredged depth of 35 feet, but the Feds want to get 40 feet so the largest ships can come in and the new crane can be used up to its potential," he said.

The ships that would supply propane to the proposed DCP bulk propane storage facility would not be stopped if dredging wasn't done, said Gelinas, echoing Therriault.

"They would just need to wait for high tide or come in light-loaded," he said.

New cargo-loading equipment at the port of Searsport

The bond also calls for $2 million for new loading equipment for the port at Mack Point, to be matched by $2 million in private funds.

The new equipment will be used to help load dry bulk materials onto cargo ships at the state-owned pier. The dry cargo will mostly be Maine wood pellets that will be shipped to markets in Europe.

"We currently offload a lot of materials like road salt using either the cranes on the ships or the new Liebherr 550 crane," said Therriault. "This will allow us . . . to start moving goods from land-to-ship instead of the other way around."

The funds will be used to purchase additional equipment to be used with the crane and to modify existing railroad tracks so bulk materials traveling by rail can be more easily unloaded through a bottom dump spout onto a conveyor.

"Private funding would come from Sprague and/or the customer," said Therriault. "This has no connection to DCP or Irving."