Work under way to clean up, repair vital Eastport breakwater

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EASTPORT — A day after the catastrophic collapse of a 200-foot portion of the Eastport Breakwater, crews worked to clean up the site and engineers began the process of figuring out why it happened — and what to do next.

Local fishermen, the U.S. Coast Guard and whale watch captains are among those who rely on the 400-foot long L-shaped breakwater and pier that protects the inner harbor and marina of the small Washington County city. In Eastport, fishing and other marine pursuits are vital to the regional economy, and the breakwater is critical to fishing.

“It’s so important to us,” Mary Repole, the chair of the Eastport City Council, said Friday about the fishery in Eastport. “It’s one of the biggest industries. A large number of people in Eastport are fishermen.”

That’s one reason she felt so encouraged by the positive tenor of the emergency harbor committee meeting she attended earlier that day. Officials from the Eastport Port Authority, which manages the breakwater, were joined by most of the area fishermen and Eastport Harbor Master Richard Clark to figure out their immediate next steps. Repole said that because of the breakwater collapse, many fishing boats are going to have to leave the protected inner basin area, but the fleet will not have to leave Eastport entirely while the structure is being repaired.

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“It’s very, very distressing, but the community is really pulling together,” she said of the aftermath of the accident, which injured one man, sunk one boat, damaged other vessels and knocked a pickup truck from the breakwater into the harbor. “It’s encouraging to see. It’s really good to be in a room where people are coming up with solutions. It made me proud of everybody. It was wonderful to see.”

The city, which owns the breakwater, was just getting ready to start a long-planned-for $11 million project to replace deteriorated portions of the aging structure. The project, to be funded by a mix of federal, state and local dollars, recently went out to bid. The bids are due back on Monday, Repole said, but because of the collapse it seemed possible to her that the scope of the project will be changed.

Eastport Port Authority Director Chris Gardner said Friday that officials are trying to figure out a strategy to dock the 40 or so fishing vessels that will last through reconstruction of the breakwater, which he estimated would take at least 18 months.

“That’s the best case scenario — we’re probably looking at two years,” Gardner said.

The Port Authority owns land at Broad Cove, also on Eastport Island.

“We’ll probably look to establish something long-term at Broad Cove,” he said.

Gardner said that one piece of good news is that the breakwater facility “seems to be holding relatively stable” after the initial collapse.

“We have engineers on site today, giving the facility a lookover, seeing what steps to take to stabilize it,” he said.

Chief Steven Ruh of Coast Guard Station Eastport said that efforts Thursday to haul the sunken pickup truck and vessel were successful. He wanted people to know that although the station is located just north of the breakwater and some Coast Guard vessels are moored on docks connected to the breakwater, the station is “fully operational and responding to distress calls.”

“Yesterday they recovered the boats, et cetera, and today it looks ordinary — minus the breakwater collapse,” Ruh said.

Before the collapse, city officials and other had been working for more than a year to get ready to do the originally planned breakwater replacement project, including figuring out the scope of engineering and submitting a myriad of federal permit applications.

“The problem was that the [federal government] came up with all of these things before we could get our permits,” Repole said. “They had to do a study and evaluate the effect on the mammals. Then they wanted to know the effect that this will have on flounder. In the last year, we were constantly being held up, as far as getting all the permitting done … It takes a long, long time.”

Because part of the reconstruction money is coming from the Maine Department of Transportation’s multimodal transportation fund, MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot said his agency also was mobilizing in Eastport to figure out what’s next.

“We have engineers on site, as well as our project development crew [in Augusta],” he said. “They will help determine not only exactly what went wrong, but what we’ll need to do to move forward. It’s in everybody’s best interests to get all the answers as quickly as possible.”

Talbot said specifics about the collapse and the rebuilding project will need to wait until engineers finish their initial assessment. Then, he said, they hopefully will have answers to questions, including whether the piers were sufficiently shored up or if the collapse was accelerated by weather or tidal conditions.

“Otherwise, you’re really guessing,” he said, adding that the information received may change the scope of work, or the speed, of the rebuilding project.

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