Portland Harbor officials prepare 3rd application for dredge funding

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Officials hope their third attempt at federal funding since 2020 will finally lead to the long-delayed dredging of Portland harbor.

The project has twice failed to obtain funds to help dredge the harbor, which hasn’t been dredged in more than 70 years. In that period several feet of toxic sediment has accumulated, making certain parts of the harbor inaccessible for boats and interfering with docking and other waterfront operations.

William Needelman
Portland Waterfront Coordinator William Needelman

“It’s really about preserving the uses, businesses, and employment that relies on quality water access,” Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said.

Stakeholders in the project – the Portland Harbor Commission, the city of South Portland, the Maine Department of Transportation, and staffers for Maine’s legislative and congressional representatives – met on March 2 to review last year’s application for $24 million from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE Discretionary Grant program, which was denied in November.

The Portland Harbor Dredge and Confined Aquatic Disposal project was one of 700 applications for RAISE and one of 200 rated “highly recommended” by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Needelman said; 90 were selected for funding.

At the meeting, a DOT representative said the project proposal, although rated in the highest possible category of applications, could be improved – particularly its cost-benefit analysis.

Although Needelman said it was unclear whether that adjustment would have secured the funding, in the new application the cost analysis will take a different approach, placing more emphasis on the value of everything the waterfront has to offer and identifying how much of that value is at risk due to the buildup of sediment.

The 2022 application is due April 14. Needelman said he expects an accelerated review by the DOT, which could come as soon as Labor Day.

“The fundamentals of the project are speaking for themselves, and we really just need to dial it in and make sure that we have our support,” he said.

Before any dredging can take place, the plan requires construction of a CAD cell – a large hole dug underwater near the mouth of Mill Cove on the South Portland side of the harbor – where recovered sediment would be deposited.

Once the cell is created and old contaminated sediment is removed from the harbor, future dredging of the harbor will be much easier, Needelman said, because newer sediments are clean enough for standard disposal methods in the open ocean.

The project as a whole is estimated to cost around $31 million, and Needelman said officials are still evaluating whether some state funding from the Coronavirus State/Local Fiscal Recovery Fund could be available. If possible, he said, a portion of the available $10 million or so could be used for the project, and organizers could potentially seek less federal funding.

The dredging project is time sensitive due to various required permits. While state and federal permits still have time before they expire, Needelman said, additional sediment testing of the CAD cell project may be necessary if the project goes forward this year.