Gov. Janet Mills’ reallocation of $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds last week caught Portland waterfront officials by surprise.
A specialized Portland waterfront team had counted on the funds to support a harbor dredging project a decade in the works that would remove sediment buildup and improve water quality.
According to Gov. Mills’ biennial budget proposal for fiscal year 2024-25, $10 million originally included in the 2021 Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan to dredge the Portland harbor has been reallocated to the Small Business Health Insurance Premium Relief Program, which supplements health insurance costs for small business owners and their employees.
Dan Haley, Chair of the Harbor Commission, said that the project team’s fourth attempt to secure federal funds for the dredging project seemed to have “the end within sight” before the ARPA funds were directed elsewhere. Losing funding would be a huge step back for the project, he said.
“We [Portland’s waterfront] are the economic driver of the state,” Haley said. “Why do they want to jeopardize a $32 million dollar project that’s funded by the municipalities, by the private wharf owners, and by Maine Department of Transportation money? Why do they want to take $10 million and put it somewhere else?”
The Portland Harbor Dredging Project has been in the works since 2012 when the city of Portland secured a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for sediment testing. Since then, the project has compiled funding from Maine municipalities, the EPA and more to secure $22 million of its $32 million goal — though $10 million of that $22 million figure had included the ARPA funding that has been reallocated.
Sharon Huntley, director of communications for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, told the Phoenix that “with the current lack of funding for the dredge project and the Small Business Health Insurance Premium Relief Program ending in about three months, the Governor believed it would be best to reallocate the funding to continue helping small businesses and their employees.”
The program would extend health insurance assistance to small businesses from April to December 2023.
UN-MUDDYING THE ISSUE
The team behind the harbor dredging program, composed of waterfront officials, business leaders, environmentalists and others from Portland and South Portland, plans to apply in February for the fourth time for federal funding toward the Portland Harbor Working Waterfront Rehabilitation Project. They project that the $31.9 million project will improve berthing depth for vessels using the wharves, like commercial cruise ships, fishing boats and passenger ships coming to and from the islands.
After USDOT rejected their previous application, the group hired Tom Bell, spokesperson for the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG), to film a video accompanying their application.
On Jan. 21 at low tide, roughly 45 people attended a portion of the video shoot holding signs with messages like “help dig us out.” They stood on a muddy bank, symbolizing the toxic sediment that has built up in the harbor after over 70 years without dredging.
Bell and other proponents of the project hope the video will help communicate the need and support for the project to those who aren’t familiar with Portland and its waterfront. The video might not only be geared towards USDOT officials, but the Maine legislature as well.
Experts say there are reasons to support the harbor dredging project beyond economic ones. Dredging old sediments and removing them from the harbor would be an environmental boon, said Curtis Bohlen, executive director of the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. Metals and other materials like DDT, a dangerous chemical developed as an insecticide, were found as shallow as a foot or two deep in the sediment.
“The risk here is that anytime we have living organisms digging into those sediments, they’re exposing themselves to all these nasty toxins,” he said.
To safely remove them, the dredging project includes the digging of a Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cell underwater near Mill Cove in South Portland. Harmful sediments would be deposited there and covered up.
“We want to get this stuff out of the marine environment that living organisms expose themselves to, and get it buried deep enough so that those organisms don’t interact with it,” Bohlen said.
Using a CAD cell is likely the safest chance at effectively dredging the harbor, Bohlen said. There is a risk of exposing it to more of the harbor if the process is done incorrectly or hastily, but Bohlen is confident that the team will dredge carefully when the time comes.
“People are aware of that risk, but everybody wants to do it right,” Bohlen said.