Sears Island, on right, was one of several sites considered for a port to support the offshore industry in the future. Press Herald photo

The Maine House of Representatives on Wednesday backed legislation exempting sand dunes on Sears Island from environmental rules to authorize the state to grant a permit to build an offshore wind terminal.

By voting 77-65, the House reversed itself eight days after voting 80-65 to reject the legislation. Thirteen lawmakers, hearing from environmental and labor groups, changed their positions and yielded to Gov. Janet Mills on a key energy policy priority: putting Maine on the path to become an East Coast player in generating wind power from the Atlantic Ocean.

The measure now returns to the Senate, which approved the bill on Monday, for final enactment before heading to Mills for her consideration.

Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, who backed the legislation, said he recently visited the area that he said the state has already prepared to serve as a port. “The site has all been engineered,” he said, with drainage, culverts and “field that has grown up on gravel.”

He reminded lawmakers that the bill would establish a $1 million Coastal Sand Dune Restoration and Protection Fund that the Department of Environmental Protection can use to pay up to 50% of eligible costs incurred in a project to restore, protect, conserve or “revegetate” a coastal sand dune system and up to 100% of eligible costs for projects relating to coastal sand dune systems.

House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, who opposed the measure, said during a brief House debate that Maine’s environmental laws are important, “and Sears Island is a beautiful and pristine location.”


“I’ve seen the studies. If a port is needed, there’s other locations to look at,” he said.

Critics of the project have urged Mack Point to be used to avoid what they call the industrialization of Sears Island. But the Mills administration has said an advantage of Sears Island over Mack Point is that dredging will not be needed. Several opponents said they were torn between conflicting environmental benefits: protecting the sand dunes and capitalizing on Maine’s access to the Atlantic and harnessing powerful ocean winds to be transformed into clean energy.

Francesca “Ches” Gundrum, Maine Audubon’s director of advocacy, finds a power outlet to charge and work on her laptop in a fourth-floor hallway just beside the dome before the sessions started Tuesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Environmentalists on both sides of the issue say sand dunes on Sears Island protect buildings and infrastructure from waves and flooding while providing habitat for migratory shore birds and endangered and threatened species. Advocates of the project, however, argued that the legislation affects a manmade sand dune system on four-tenths of an acre on state Department of Transportation land on Sears Island that was created by the construction of a jetty.

Francis Eanes, executive director of the Maine Labor Climate Council, said members of the labor union coalition that includes the construction trades such as electrical workers, operating engineers, painters and others, spoke with House members who had voted no, urging them to consider the economic development impacts of building an offshore wind terminal.

“We’ve been having really, really productive conversations about what this bill will do,” he said.

State representatives also “heard from their constituents,” Eanes said.


Jack Shapiro, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his group and other advocates of the wind port “worked hard to make sure all members know what’s at stake.” He cited the importance of moving Maine closer to generating wind power and supporting manufacturing work in an area that lost more than 500 jobs in 2014 with the closing of the Bucksport paper mill.

However, Citizens to Protect Sears Island, a group that has opposed the legislation, said the sand dune “may be bulldozed into the ocean, along with over 1.2 million cubic yards of soil, creating a new 25-acre tarmac.”

Rep. Kristi Mathieson, D-Kittery, who flipped her vote to “yes,” said she initially voted against it because she couldn’t support destroying a sand dune.

“I mean, just last year we passed a law to protect sand dunes and here we are a year later making an exception,” she said. “But there were environmentalists on both side, so I dug in.”

Mathieson researched the legislation, read legislative testimony, talked to the tribes that have weighed in and studied the issue in other ways, she said. She concluded a wind port at Sears Island has potential as a clean energy driver for the entire state.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who also changed her vote to “yes,” is a friend of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine. Not all have taken a position, but many tribal members oppose the bill because it could lead to the desecration of land sacred to the Passamaquoddy Tribe on Mills’ preferred site, Sears Island,


“The speaker wanted the next step in the permitting process to move forward,” spokeswoman Mary-Erin Casale said. “She is confident there will be thorough vetting of both locations moving forward.”

Sears Island is the last and only undeveloped island off Maine with causeway access “providing an invaluable asset to working people who want to experience the undeveloped Maine coast or lose themselves in the mature hardwoods,” the group said.

Mills announced in February her selection of Sears Island for Maine’s foray into wind power. She said then it was not an easy decision, and it quickly drew opposition from environmentalists who focused on the sand dunes, urging lawmakers to not approve a carve-out in environmental rules and instead turn to nearby Mack Point.

The 100-acre site on Sears Island was one of several reviewed for more than two years by Maine officials. Portland, Eastport and Mack Point – which also is in Searsport – also were considered.

Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this report.

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