Environmentalists are decrying a year-long process meant to gather public feedback on where to build a deepwater offshore wind port, calling it a “charade.”
They say state officials failed to adequately engage the public or tribal communities and effectively decided where to construct the port long before the process began.
The Maine Department of Transportation has been making an internal case for Sears Island while “giving an illusion of an impartial analysis of port possibilities to the public,” Matt Cannon, the state conservation and energy director for Sierra Club Maine, said in comments at the final meeting of the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group.
“Some,” he said, “see it as a breach of public trust.”
State officials have said they’re considering several locations for the 100-acre port, including Eastport, Mack Point and Sears Island, and don’t expect to choose a final location until next year. The officials insist they have not made a final decision.
But participants in the process, which began in May 2022, said the state has long advocated for Sears Island, the largest undeveloped island in Penobscot Bay.
They believe officials have not seriously considered other options for the port, which would be the staging area for equipment needed to build and maintain wind turbines in federal waters in the Gulf of Maine.
Those suspicions hardened after documents released via a public records request submitted by Friends of Sears Island earlier this year revealed internal discussions seeming to indicate an official preference for the island. Friends of Sears Island manages the trails on the conserved portion of the island.
The documents included a “Stakeholder Management Plan” written by state-hired consultant Kay Rand. The document said the goals were, in part, to “develop and execute a stakeholder outreach strategy that would enable Governor Mills to … announce a commitment to pursue development of Sears Island as the Renewable Energy Port of the Northeast.”
The document is dated Sept. 8, 2021 — eight months before the stakeholder group held its first meeting — and mentions pursuing Sears Island as the port at least four times.
Rand said last week that the language was based on conclusions of an early version of a study by Moffat & Nichol recommending Sears Island as the location, but that the group was still collecting data on all sites.
“The Stakeholder Plan was designed around the public release of that report. Nothing more,” Rand said.
The Moffat & Nichol report that was eventually released to the public does not recommend a specific location, instead saying that “with modifications, both the Mack Point and Sears Island sites can achieve or surpass the minimum required criteria.”
Critics point to other internal documents, including a presentation given by the Department of Transportation in November 2021 and a preliminary design proposal it commissioned in October that also mention developing the island, despite public assurances that no decision had been made.
Matt Burns, executive director of the Maine Port Authority and one of the leading agency representatives for the discussions, said last week that the state had not decided on a port.
“We will continue to conduct a robust and transparent public engagement process in any area that may be impacted by a development of a port facility,” he said in an email.
State officials have conducted outreach for nearly two years, Burns added, and advisory group members visited Eastport and Searsport, while Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note had reached out to tribal representatives.
“There are many more factors that need to be considered before the state makes a decision about the location of the development of a port facility,” Burns said. “These factors include a robust analysis of environmental data to comply with the National Environmental Permitting Act (NEPA) process.”
Burns declined to participate in an informational meeting hosted by Friends of Sears Island in May, citing scheduling conflicts, but did send a video. The nonprofit said the meeting attracted more than 170 people, some with little understanding of the proposal.
“Some people thought the plan was to install wind turbines on Sears Island,” Rolf Olsen, president of Friends of Sears Island, said in written comments to the advisory group in June.
“Only a few understood that there was a plan that might result in a new port, but no one knew that a port with a footprint larger than Bath Iron Works might be built in our town within five years. This port would affect life here for residents and businesses, no matter if it were built on Sears Island or on Mack Point.”
The port design would require at least 100 acres of flat land to assemble the huge concrete bases, blades and component parts, as well as 1,500 feet of water frontage and no power lines or other obstructions overhead. Bath Iron Works, by comparison, occupies roughly 63 acres in downtown Bath, according to property tax records.
The Department of Transportation’s official Facebook page, where staff have solicited public feedback on projects like the extension of the Eastern Trail, carbon reduction and long-range transportation planning, doesn’t appear to mention the offshore wind port advisory group meetings.
On March 29, the day the group held its second-to-last offshore wind advisory meeting, a post on the Facebook page asked which transportation projects should be prioritized from a statewide list, and included a link to the list. “Take a look and let us know what you think.”
The offshore wind group has held at least six meetings in various locations. They have been broadcast remotely but not recorded; a request by the Monitor to record an early meeting was denied. Minutes and other materials are available on a Department of Transportation page dedicated to the discussions.
Paul Merrill, director of communications for the department, said in a text message last week that the department rarely does social media posts for such meetings, although some project managers occasionally ask to do paid ads. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a meeting notification on our general Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds,” he said.
State officials want to move quickly in building a port to construct and maintain the massive floating turbines in order to compete against other New England states in the emerging offshore wind market.
Mack Point and Sears Island emerged early as the top contenders in the process, in part for their potential access to deep water, rail and central location.
Initial estimates showed it would take longer and be much more expensive to build out Mack Point than Sears Island. But updated figures show the cost of constructing a facility would be the same for either location — between $400 million and $500 million — and take roughly six years, including permitting and design.
The big cost difference comes in leasing the land. The state owns Sears Island and would lease the land to a company to operate the port. That would make the process much simpler and less expensive than developing a site owned by a private entity, Burns of the Maine Port Authority said.
Mack Point is owned by Sprague Energy, which has said it would invest up to $20 million to upgrade and move infrastructure to accommodate the development.
Jim Therriault, the vice president of materials handling for the company, estimated Sprague might charge $90,000 per acre per year to lease the land. That could amount to $290 million to $490 million over 50 years. But Theriault argues that those costs are part of operations and shouldn’t be considered when comparing construction costs, since they would be paid by an operator in either scenario.
Cannon of Sierra Club Maine argued that while the leasing cost difference is significant, the department hasn’t explored opportunities for federal funding, including money for brownfield remediation and Inflation Reduction Act funding that could be used to offset costs at Mack Point.
“There are billions of dollars available for various aspects of port development,” Cannon said.
Burns said the Department of Transportation can’t include potential federal funds in the analysis because it won’t be able to apply for them until a decision is made on where to site the port.
Conservationists say Mack Point, an operating cargo terminal with a railroad, warehouses, liquid tank storage and deepwater dock that has handled several components of onshore wind turbines, is a more appropriate place to build a port than the shores of Sears Island. The state also has made recent investments in the rail infrastructure and heavy bulk cargo handling equipment at Mack Point.
Advocates have fought to keep development off Sears Island for decades. Roughly two-thirds of the island — around 601 of its 936 acres — are held in a conservation easement by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with trails meandering throughout. The state, in a 2009 deal, agreed to conserve some of the island.
As part of that agreement, the northwest corner of the island was earmarked for future development as a port.
“I’ve come to know and admire many members of this group, so I am saddened and frustrated by this year-long charade,” Searsport resident David Italiaander wrote in an email to the group in late June, two days before the final meeting. “Because that is what this was.”
Another resident registered a similar complaint.
“I am sorry to say this process has been a great disappointment,” wrote Becky Layton Bartovics, who identified herself as a resident of Penobscot Bay. Developing offshore wind, she added, “is likely necessary to electrify the economy and remove the degradation caused by fossil fuel use. Siting is key.”
Editor’s note: Kate Cough’s husband, Caleb Jackson, works with Maine Coast Heritage Trust and is involved in overseeing the conservation easement on Sears Island.
This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.