2016-12-30 / Front Page

Big dig on tap for harbor waters

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When giant dredging vessels left Casco Bay last year, most residents may have assumed they’d seen the last of their kind for at least a decade. But another underwater dig, talked about by officials on both sides of the Fore River going back at least a decade, is now on tap.

While the just-completed project dug out the navigable harbor channel considered to be part of federal waters, the new project, estimated to cost upward of $14 million, will clean contaminated material from around more than 20 public and private wharfs in Portland and South Portland, including the Portland Street Pier in Ferry Village.

Ideally, officials say, the dig in state waters would have been piggy-backed onto the federal dredge. However, the tide has come in slowly on wharf work, in part because investigation into the need was funded by a first-in-the nation Brownfield grant for remediation of submerged lands.

In January 2015, on its third application, Portland Harbor Commission won a $350,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a Brownfield assessment of Portland Harbor.

“This was the first time the EPA had ever awarded a grant for dredging,” Commission Chairman Tom Dobbins said during a Dec. 21 presentation to the South Portland City Council. “They were afraid it was going to open a flood of applications across the country. So, that’s why it took us the three tries to get it.”

The grant was followed by another $250,000 from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to assist in the process.

With the EPA money, the harbor commission hired Campbell Environmental Group of Falmouth to determine how much material needs to be dredged. Much of that silt, going down 3 to 4 feet, is contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), mostly deposited during the 19th century. PAHs are a group of more than 100 different chemicals released from burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood or other organic substances.

The harbor commission then used the MDOT dollars to pay Stantec, an engineering firm based in Edmonton, Alberta, with an office in Scarborough, to design a 50-foot hole in the harbor floor to bury the dredged soil. That underwater landfill, called a confined aquatic disposal cell, will go in one of five harbor spots. After lobstermen objected to placing the cell at Fish Point, a spot about a mile off Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the top candidate to host the confined aquatic disposal is now near the U.S. Coast Guard station in South Portland.

“The selection of a location is really sort of a milestone for us, in order to begin digging into the details,” said Glenn Daukas, senior geologist at Campbell Environmental.

According to Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman, who works as lone staffer for the Non-Federal Dredge Workgroup – a gathering of non-appointed volunteers dedicated to ensuring safe clean-up of contaminated sediment in a way that is, in its words, is “politically, socially, environmentally and financially” responsible – the project is now ready to begin applying for state permits to begin digging. That process should be completed by the end of 2017, he said.

The plan, he said, is for Portland Harbor Commission to obtain one umbrella permit for the work, which individual wharf owners would fall under.

At that point, it’s a matter of coming up with between $8 million and $14 million to move between 300,000 and 400,000 cubic yards of material.

“We expect everybody’s going to be dipping into their pockets. It’s going to be very expensive and it’s going to be a long-term process,” Needelman said.

“I think the important thing to note is that this is a portion of the channel that is not maintained by the federal government,” said Tom Meyers, who retired from his post as South Portland’s director of transportation and waterfront in 2013, and now volunteers with the Non-Federal Dredge Workgroup.

The workgroup was created jointly by Portland and South Portland in 2014. It includes about 40 stakeholders in the dredge project, such as pier owners, lobster industry representatives, state and federal regulators, various environmental protection groups, Portland Harbor Commission, Maine Port Authority and private consultants.

The project is important to wharf owners on both sides of the harbor because accumulated sediment from the past century has cost them berthings, with sand and silt piled up deep enough to prevent tying up boats, and that means lost revenue.

“The wharf owners are losing water,” Daukas said. “At low tide now at some of the wharfs, they’ve lost up to a quarter to a third of their wharf space.”

According to Daukas, financially strapped wharf owners are “caught in a spiral of decreasing value,” making banks unwilling to front loans for needed repairs and maintenance. At the same time, he said, owners are reluctant to drop upward of $50,000 to $80,000, each, for environmental assessments of the soils around their pilings.

“They don’t want to spend that kind of money just to confirm they can’t dump offshore,” Daukas said.

Unlike the recent federal dredging, which dug out the center part of the Fore River channel and carted that sediment 10 miles out to sea, the contaminated material around the piers can’t be disposed of in the same way.

According to Stantec project manager Nathan Henderson, by dumping contaminants in a confined aquatic disposal cell located just nine feet below the water’s surface at the Coast Guard station, workers can use a silt net to control and direct the drop. Out to sea, that’s not possible, he said, and who knows where the toxic deposits might go.

Getting it right is as critical as doing the job at all, Daukas agreed.

“This is the first Brownfield grant that has ever been allowed on submerged lands, so it’s being watched very carefully, both at the Region I office in Boston, as well as down in Washington,” he said. “All of us, we’re kind of charting new pathways here.”

However, not all members of the South Portland City Council seemed on board with the project at least at week’s workshop on the topic.

“The bottom line is, I don’t get it,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “You’re not going to take it away. You’ve just going to move it within the harbor. You haven’t changed the physical amount. “

Henderson said only the top three feet of sediment will go in the confined aquatic disposal cell. Below that, the soils are much cleaner and can be dumped elsewhere, he said. The cell would then be topped with 5 to 10 feet of clean material from the very bottom of the dredged areas.

As for the cell itself, he said, that hole will be deep enough to be lined with clay and ancient Presumpscot formation clay and other high density material tilled by glaciers during the last ice age.

“These materials are highly impermeable, and that in itself creates a natural barrier and a natural containment for the contaminated materials,” Henderson said. “We’re very confident that when the material is placed there it will not be migrating very far.”

Councilor Claude Morgan has been at least peripherally involved in dredging talks since 2008, when Normandeau Associates conducted the fist analysis of disposal options for sediment piling up around wharfs in Portland Harbor.

Morgan said his understanding had always been that the contaminants would go further offshore, or in specially-designed “sausage wrappings” that would allow the sediment to be sold by the cities as fill material for construction sites.

“I’m surprised to see this as close as the Coast Guard station,” he said.

“We’re told lots of things are safe and then we find out decades later than maybe we did not have all of the information to assure they were safe. Who knew that fracking could cause earthquakes? So, what sounds like a sound proposition may in time make us wish we had taken it further offshore,” he said.

“My illusion 10 years ago when we started this was that this material was going to end up in the offshore (confined aquatic disposal cells) created for the federal dredging project,” Morgan said, asking, “Is there any way we can hold off and wait for the next cycle of federal dredging?”

“We’d love to make a case for that, but the sediments in Portland Harbor will not meet the criteria for offshore disposal,” Henderson said. “It’s just too contaminated. We have to dispose of it in an alternative way.”

While Morgan was keen to wait out options that might be better, or at least further away, Councilor Linda Cohen was more gung-ho.

“Watching what’s going on in D.C., we don’t even know if we’ll have an EPA in a few months, so I say let’s get this done,” she said.

While licensing of the project with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is underway – because the state technically owns all submerge lands and leases it to wharf owners – the real bugaboo will be funding the project.

Already, it’s been a tight squeeze, just on the preliminary assessing.

“We kind of had to back our way into the costs,” Daukas said. “Rather than saying, ‘Here’s what we need to do and here’s how much we think it’s really going to cost, and we want ‘X’ amount of money,’ it was, ‘You have this amount of money and you really need to try and figure out a way to get it all done within that.’

So, we’re always looking for ways to get more money and reduce costs, because we’re on a shoestring budget to get all the scope of things we want to get done,” he said.

While the project might become wider news once the bill comes due, Morgan said it is the yeoman’s work being done now for which taxpayers should be thankful.

“This is the unsung work of public service that nobody gets to see or hear about, or read about in the newspapers,” he said. “It’s not very sexy. It’s kind of wonky. But it’s really, really important work. And it’s been very burdensome for the private sector to pony up the money to get this done.”

GET INVOLVED

The next meeting of the Non-Federal Dredge Workgroup, a gathering of non-appointed volunteers working to ensure safe clean-up of contaminated sediment from public and private wharfs in Portland Harbor, will take place at 10 a.m. on Sunday, January 29, in Room 209 of Portland City Hall.

Participation is open to all interested parties. Those currently involved include pier owners, lobster industry representatives, state and federal regulators, various environmental protection groups, the Portland Harbor Commission, the Maine Port Authority, and private consultants.

A collaborative effort of Portland and South Portland, the NFD workgroup is staffed by Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needlman.

More information is available online at www.portlandharbordredge.info, a website maintained by Baldacci Communications.

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