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Portland Harbor dredging project to finally move forward

Low tide at Sturdivant’s Wharf in Portland last January.

Posted on January 15, 2024

A long-awaited dredging project along the Portland waterfront is finally moving forward after more than a decade of planning, advocacy and delays.

The Maine Department of Transportation said Friday that it will put the multiyear project out to bid this spring and hopes to begin work this fall.

Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said securing the final pieces of funding marks a “great moment” for a project that he’s been helping to plan for the last decade – one that is crucial to maintain working waterfronts in Portland and South Portland. He called it a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for waterfront property owners.

“We’re super excited to be moving forward,” Needelman said. “And we’re extremely grateful our community has had the patience to stick with this project because we know it hasn’t been easy.”

Sediment and silt along the shorelines is generally contaminated with urban runoff, sewage and stormwater discharges, and old industrial emissions, so the mud could not simply be dumped at sea, making the project more complicated and costly than the periodic dredging of a shipping channel.

The project will restore berthing space and boat access along the working waterfronts where sediment has gradually built up between the commercial finger piers. Some are now partly surrounded by exposed mud and silt at low tides, preventing boats from reaching piers to tie up or to load and unload. It will be the first time that part of the harbor has been dredged in more than 70 years.

Needelman said the project will preserve working waterfronts in both cities. “If you can’t serve the boats, then you’re not a harbor,” he said.

The Mills administration released $10 million in state funding for the project on Tuesday after Portland scaled back the scope of the project to reduce costs and get it moving forward. A portion of the planned dredge area near the city’s Ocean Gateway terminal was not considered crucial and was eliminated from the project to move forward, officials said.

“The governor welcomes the changes from the city, thanks them for their partnership and ingenuity, and is happy to see the $10 million put to effective use for Maine people, which has always been her goal,” Mills’ spokesman Ben Goodman said in an email.

The project had been estimated to cost $32 million. Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Paul Merrill said the revised plans will cost an estimated $25 million.

Needelman said the project will begin by digging an underwater pit near the U.S. Coast Guard Station in South Portland. That will entail removing 370,000 cubic yards of material below the sea bottom. Since that material is not contaminated, as is the shoreline sediment, it will be dumped in federal waters offshore.

The hole in the floor of the harbor, known as a confined aquatic disposal (CAD) cell, will eventually be filled with the contaminated dredge spoils and sealed off. The project will have the side benefit of effectively removing contamination that has been resting in the harbor for decades.

Needelman said it will take about two years to complete the CAD cell. The dredging along the Portland and South Portland shorelines will be conducted in two phases, with the first phase including property owners who are ready to move to the final design phase and have the money needed to pay the so-called tipping fee that will help cover the costs of dredging and disposal of material. That fee is currently estimated to be $35 a cubic yard, though the price could change depending on project bids.


Needelman said it will likely take four dredging seasons to complete the project, which could result in as much as 244,000 cubic yards of sediment being removed.

Planners have been working on the project for more than a decade. After years of planning, Portland, South Portland and waterfront businesses began seeking funding for the project in 2019.

Lobsterman load traps onto a lobster boat at Custom House Wharf in Portland in July 2022.

Last year, lawmakers changed Mills’ budget proposal to include the funding from the American Rescue Plan Act for the project.

Lawmakers were told that the state funding was a key component of seeking an additional $10 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation to eliminate a funding gap in the dredging project. Mills had wanted that funding to be put toward reducing health care costs for small businesses and their employees since the dredging project had been rejected three times already.

Goodman said city officials revised the scope of the project after being rejected for a fourth time. This year’s request from the federal government was smaller than the previous request of $18 million.

The dredging project is seen as vital to preserving the city’s working waterfront, which includes commercial fishing, international container shipping, and recreational boating.

City officials previously said the project would have benefitted 30 waterfront properties that support dozens of businesses, hundreds of jobs, thousands of vessels, and millions of dollars in annual economic activity for decades to come.

City officials say that the build-up of contaminated sediment has reduced water depth and eliminated 26% of usable waterfront and pier access. The sediment is caused by sand and silt entering the harbor during heavy rainstorms.

A July 2020 economic assessment of Portland Harbor, paid for by Portland and South Portland, estimated that marine and non-marine businesses contribute more than $1 billion to the local economy.



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