Washington, DC — The Maine Department of Transportation wants to turn Sears Island in Penobscot Bay into a cargo container port, according to an agency scenario released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the plan, more than a third of the largest uninhabited island on the Eastern Seaboard would be paved over. The rest of the island would be used as a “mitigation bank” to facilitate wetlands destruction in other parts of the state.
Sears Island, called “Place of Shining Sands” by the Penobscot Indians, shelters more than 200 varieties of turtles, birds and mammals, including six state or federally protected species. Sears Island also has 73 different wetlands, covering 223 acres, with most of the rest of the island consisting of forested uplands. The planned cargo container facility would occupy 341 acres of the nearly 1,000 acre-island.
This latest plan comes twelve years after a similar scheme by the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) was withdrawn “following minor site work” and “under a cloud of controversy” (in the words of its January 2008 “Wetland Mitigation Bank Prospectus”). What the Prospectus does not mention is that in the early 1990s, DOT and its consultants told numerous federal agencies that there were no wetlands on the island – and then proceeded to illegally fill more than 10 acres of them. The U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) filed a civil enforcement action against DOT and its contractors. DOT settled the case for $800,000 worth of wetland restoration and preservation efforts.
The earlier plan to build a cargo port on Sears Island was not withdrawn because of this controversy; rather, it was withdrawn because the EPA felt the severe environmental impacts associated with a cargo port on Sears Island were un-permittable.
“Carving up Sears Island was a bad idea a decade ago and is even a worse idea now,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and lawyer who formerly worked for the EPA, noting that the DOT Prospectus brags that “protection of parts of Sears Island would add a significant jewel” to Maine’s conservation efforts. “If protecting ‘parts’ of Sears Island would add a jewel, saving all of Sears Island would be like appending the Hope Diamond.”
A mitigation credit bank allows developers to buy the right to fill in naturally functioning wetlands by purchasing the promise of the creation or restoration of wetlands elsewhere. In the case of Sears Island, DOT proposes that some lands be saved only in exchange for the destruction of wetlands elsewhere in the state. In addition, there are big questions about whether Sears Island could function as a mitigation bank.
“Offering Sears Island up for a wetland mitigation bank does not even pass the straight face test when the only restoration opportunities on the island consist of two sites, totaling three-eighths of an acre,” Bennett added. “The Governor of Maine should put an end to these ridiculous development scenarios and save Sears Island once and for all.”