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Business and Economy

Portsmouth Scrap Metal Dilemma Hints At Pressures On Port

Emily Corwin
New Hampshire Public Radio
Scrap in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

If you've ever driven into Portsmouth, New Hampshire from Newington, you've likely seen the large piles of scrap metal looming along the waterfront. The scrap company's lease at the port is up for renewal in December, and opponents in town are upset about the view and the environment. They're now pushing the state for some changes. From New Hampshire Public Radio, Emily Corwin reports.

Geno Marconi is port director at the Port of New Hampshire. His desk overlooks the harbor in Portsmouth - tug boats, cargo ships and all. "It's a giant ballet out here at times. It really is," he says.

Right now, a huge electromagnet is lifting a tangle of scrap metal into the air. "It's used to pick the scrap metal out of the back of the delivery truck and put it in the pile," Marconi says.

Pease Development Authority manages the Port of New Hampshire. They lease property to a few businesses, including a steamship company and a road salt distributor.

Credit Emily Corwin / New Hampshire Public Radio
New Hampshire Public Radio
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.

But it's this scrap company called Grimmel Industries that some folks here are in a huff about. 

"Portsmouth is a relatively clean city and advertises itself that way," says Jeff Barnum, who works on water issues in this region for the Conservation Law Foundation. 

He says scrap metal pollutes stormwater that runs into the Piscataqua. "And here we have an industry right downtown that happens to be on state property 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 Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 for violating the Clean Water Act. Federal regulators continue to monitor stormwater runoff. And 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 Grimmel's lease ends in December. 

Nearby condominium owner Tom Carroll has some ideas. "Other potential businesses like small container cargos," he says, "perhaps bring back cruise ships, a ferry service from here to Portland."

Geno Marconi at the port says he gets calls from interested cargo and cruise companies all the time. But this port, he says, has its limitations. A ferry company on a schedule can be too complicated.

"We have over five knots of current on a flood tide," Marconi says. "We can only dock and undock a ship during the period of slack current, which is about a 45-minute period."

Big cargo or cruise ships? The river's too narrow. "We've got a lot of turns here and narrow turns and tight turns," Marconi says.

The list goes on. 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 to the scrap at this point," he says. "If we had, we'd probably have been considering it."

There is one eager tenant who would hand over $500,000 a year for that property in a heartbeat. That's the city of Portsmouth. Jim Splaine sits on the City Council.

"They can look at leasing, in other words guaranteeing the port its income so that they can operate, and find a way to make the money back on the part of the city of Portsmouth, probably through some kind of a fee structure for 300 cars," Splaine says.

Yes, 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 to that, the PDA's David Mullen says: "A working port is not a parking lot, and legislatively we're supposed to be a working port for maritime use," he says. 

Key words: maritime use. Mullen says 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 on this question: Can the Portsmouth waterfront accommodate both an industrial port and a tourist-friendly commercial downtown? 

Richard Katz sits on the Historic District Commission. He imagines charter bus drivers on their way into the city. "And to your left, ladies and gentlemen, as you come into Portsmouth - we have the scrap pile!" 

Katz says he loves watching the ships come and go, but with tens of millions of dollars going into downtown development, he doesn't think the current situation makes 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.' 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.