Portsmouth Scrap Metal Dilemma Hints At Pressures On Port

May 12, 2014

Credit Emily Corwin

  Geno Marconi, the Port Director at the Port of New Hampshire, watches a giant electromagnet lifting a tangle of scrap metal into the out of a delivery truck and onto a scrap pile. “It’s like a giant ballet,” he says, pointing to the cargo ships, tugboats and delivery trucks.

The Pease Development Authority – which manages the port – leases waterfront property to the scrap company, Grimmel Industries. Grimmel’s lease ends in December, and residents along the waterfront are demanding Pease find another tenant.

Jeff Barnum works on water issues in this region for the Conservation Law Foundation. He says scrap metal pollutes storm water that runs into the Piscataqua. “Here we have an industry right down town that is on state property,” Barnum says, “and it's been known to be discharging PCBs and Mercury and a host of other heavy metals for a decade.”

Grimmel Industries declined to comment for this story.

The company was fined by the EPA in 2011 for violating the Clean Water Act.

Federal regulators continue to monitor storm water runoff. Neighbors have also long complained about dust blowing off the scrap piles.  The state Department of Environmental Services has been monitoring air quality since last summer, and says it expects a report soon.

In the meantime, a small group of active community members are pushing Pease to refuse to lease the property to Grimmel. They want the authority to find a different tenant when Grimmels’ lease ends in December.

Nearby condominium owner Tom Carroll says he’d rather see “small container cargoes, cruise ships, or a ferry service from here to Portland.”

Tom Carroll, who owns property across from the scrap piles, collects metal from the roads; video tapes "fugitive" dust events, and takes photos of flat tires resulting from scrap debris.
Credit Emily Corwin

  Geno Marconi at the port says he gets calls from interested cargo and cruise companies all the time.  But, he says, the port has its limitations.  A ferry company on a schedule must coordinate with a 5  knot flood tide with a 45-minute period of slack current.  And, he says, the bridges and geography can be tricky or impossible for big cargo or cruise ships.

PDA Executive Director, David Mullen says the $500,000 that the scrap business provides is important to the port’s bottom line.
We’ve not found a consistent alternative,” Mullen says.

There is one eager tenant who would hand over $500,000 a year for that property in a heartbeat.  The city of Portsmouth.  Jim Splaine sits on city council, and says the city could use the space for parking. “We would probably take a look at leasing,” Splaine says, “and find a way to make the money back for the city of Portsmouth through a fee structure, leases, for 300 cars.”

Many officials in Portsmouth would like to lease the scrap metal property on the Port, and turn it into a temporary solution to Portsmouth’s persistent lack of parking. Something to tide people over until a new garage can be built – and the PDA can find a new tenant to take over.

But, says David Mullen, “a working port is not a parking lot.” Pease is legislatively bound, Mullen says, to use the port property for “maritime use.”

Unless a cruise or ferry company is ready to sign on with the port and make use of the parking lot, Portsmouth would need to seek a change in state law.

That raises a fundamental question about Portsmouth’s waterfront.  Few here would advocate closing the port.  But the crux of this issue rests in this question: Can the Portsmouth waterfront accommodate both an industrial port and a tourist-friendly commercial downtown?

Historic District Commission member Richard Katz says he loves watching the ships come and go. 

But “with the tens of millions of dollars that are going into Northern Tier development, HarborCorps is on board, the Portwalk is nearing completion,” says Katz, “having essentially a scrap pile in a dominant place in the city just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.”

Port Director Geno Marconi says this struggle isn’t unique to Portsmouth. “My counterparts around the country refer to it as ‘the gentrification of ports,” He says.  “I refer to it as ‘urban encroachment.’”

But even those residents against the scrap pile say they are committed to keeping the port active. In fact, they call themselves “Save Our Working Port.“ The remaining question is just how to go about doing that.