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5 fish farms would dump 13,000 gallons of nitrogen into Downeast waters every day

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Is aquaculture another CMP-like blunder for Mills Administration? Cui bono?

By Lincoln Millstein

January 29, 2022

The Quietside Journal

SOMESVILLE, Jan. 29, 2022 - Nitrogen is one of the major factors in the changing chemistry of coastal waters, resulting in algae blooms and loss of habitat.

As Portland goes about seriously reducing its level of nitrogen in Casco Bay, the waters around Downeast may be headed in the opposite direction in a big way, especially if the Mills administration has its say.

(Read this recent Washington Post article on the demise of the Florida coast.

At a Zoom forum Tuesday attended by more than 150 persons, Frenchman Bay United President Henry Sharpe presented simulations of the concentration of nitrogen around the bay over time and its distribution, using data from American Aquafarms’s own DEP permit applications.

“These models suggest that the bay does not flush, that waste would continue to concentrate, that within just 30 days, nitrogen concentrations would exceed established regulatory thresholds, and that the so-called maximum ‘Permitted Load’ calculated by the applicant overstates the bay's assimilative capacity and understates the adverse impact of the proposed discharges,” Sharpe stated.

“Assimilative capacity” is a term poorly understood, said Brian Kavanah, chief of Maine DEP water bureau who returned QSJ’s call last night. That is a classification which aligns with Henry Sharpe’s definition of how well a body of water absorbs various discharges.

The DEP, Kavanah said, will approve applications which exceed that baseline classification by no more than 20 percent.

In other words, if your standard is that your 2-year-old poops in the bathtub, but you only allow a smaller, second poop, you’re good.

Unfortunately, Sharpe said, “So far, the models show no sign of establishing equilibrium. Water quality would continue to decline over time.”

The screenshot below from Sharpe shows two stars representing the proposed farm sites. Yellow is concentration of nitrogen in “non-eel grass areas.” Green is concentration of nitrogen - which fills almost the entire bay - above the threshold for eelgrass.

Eelgrass is an important habitat for baby lobsters and other shellfish and is particularly sensitive to the stress of too much nitrogen in the water.

The Maine chapter of the Sierra Club has determined that if all five proposed fish farms in Downeast become reality, they would “release over 4 billion gallons of effluent per day into waters that Maine’s lobster industry rely on to be clean, and would add 1,870,000 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, equivalent to adding 406,500 cars to Maine’s roads.

Key: *Mil lbs. = Million pounds of fish produced per year, MT = metric tons produced per year. **Mgd = million gallons of effluent per day to be discharged directly into coastal waters ***MT/yr. = metric ton (MT) CO2e generated per year. Carbon emissions for RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) vary between 16.7 and 23 MT CO2e/MT fish produced. CO2e is estimated using a conservative 18 MT CO2e/MT fish for each of the 5 projects. ****Aquabanq decided to shift to zero effluent

“These carbon emissions represent 15.7 percent of Maine’s 2030 greenhouse gas target, not to mention dumping 13,082 pounds of nitrogen per day into Downeast waters.

“A proposed facility in Belfast would release a 7.7 million gallon/day waste water plume, containing 11-times more nitrogen than the Belfast City Sewer. Sea life including lice will be attracted to the odors of the plume while any viruses and diseases discharged could threaten endangered salmon recovery.”

But the state environmental “protection” agency seems bent on moving ahead swiftly with massive remaking of our coastal waters in Downeast. It has permitted both the land-based salmon farms in Belfast and Bucksport and one in Jonesport.

Putting the waters of Downeast at such a high risk is a calculus the Mills administration apparently is willing to accept.

The City of Portland learned that lesson the hard way. In 2017 it spent $12 million to upgrade the aeration system at its waste treatment facility to reduce nitrogen in Casco Bay. Not all towns will be able to add such an aeration system. The City of Portland stated in 2018 that a typical nitrogen removal system costs about $40 million.

In 2018, it reduced nitrogen by 20-40 percent with a 72 percent reduction in the seasonal effluent entering Casco Bay, a decrease in nitrogen levels from 2,437 lbs/day to 685 lbs/day. The above chart showed how four fish farms would generate 13,082 pounds of nitrogen a day, or 19 times what the city of Portland is producing in Casco Bay.

Is the state of Maine willing to pay for this if its policies leads to a direct impairment of our coastal waters?

How Maine is betting economic gains outweigh pollution risks

The Mills administration has been invoking a 20-year-old memo to consider “economic benefits” against pollution risks when evaluating aquaculture permits.

The DEP granted Kingfish Maine a five-year water discharge permit for its yellowtail farm in Jonesport last year after economic development commissioner Heather Johnson urged approval because her analysis claimed jobs, local tax base increases and economic resiliency will accrue in Washington County.

DEP water bureau chief Brian Kavanah wrote in 2001:

“Where the DEP determines that that the lowering of water quality resulting from a new or increased discharge is necessary to achieve important economic or social benefits to the State, and where the DEP further determines that (1) existing in-stream water uses will be maintained and protected, and (2) the discharge is not to an outstanding national resource water, and (3) the standards of the assigned classification will be met in all receiving waters affected by the discharge or that the discharge will not cause or contribute to the failure of the receiving waters to meet standards, and (4) actual water quality is maintained and protected where any criterion of water quality exceeds the minimum standards of the next highest classification, then the requirements of the State's antidegradation policy will be deemed to be met, and the lowering of water quality will be approved.”

QSJ reached Kavanah Friday night and he said most of the conclusions in the memo were developed by his staff 20 years ago.

Were they saying it’s okay to pollute the bay to accommodate industrialization ? How is that different from Donald Trump’s stripping protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments?

See above for Kavanah’s explanation of the 20 percent rule.

And did the economic development commissioner consider the impact of the project on existing jobs - lobster harvesting or wholesale and retail sales, hospitality, tourism, real estate - or adverse impacts on property values of surrounding properties and/or diminution of marketability of other properties in Jonesport?

Those were exactly the concerns expressed by Jonesport Planning Board Chairman Frank Smith, who said last week the state didn’t consider whether the fish farm will devalue local properties or harm traditional fisheries. The board will still need to approve or reject the fish farm facility.

Kavanah didn’t have an answer except to say his agency accepted Johnson’s input. So eager to grease the way for aquaculture, the Mills administration last February attempted to free land-based fish farms from Maine’s building and energy codes. A proposed bill, which was defeated, sought to exempt Whole Oceans from having to install sprinkler and air handling systems on its planned facility in Bucksport. This would have saved the company $33 million, according to The Free Press Online.

The rush to permit aqua farms may also run afoul of the Clean Water Act, which was the signature achievement of Maine’s Edmund Muskie.

Lastly, the opportunity costs of investing $1.3 billion dollars to grow 102,000 metric tons of fish in confinement “must be evaluated in terms of a similar investment into dam removal and the restoration of abused fisheries,” the Sierra Club stated.

Around the same time Heather Johnson was out promoting aquaculture, she was pushing the CMP Corridor project, which ended in a spectacularly disastrous fashion for the Mills Administration last November when a statewide referendum soundly rejected the idea to carve a path to the Massachusetts border to benefit mostly out-of-state electricity users. Similarly in aquaculture, all the protagonists are foreign companies with the exception of AquaBanq, whose CEO said in August that his company withdrew its plan to produce land-based Atlantic salmon in Millinocket because "Norwegian land-based salmon operators have poisoned the well."

A.J. Shapiro was referring to the “die-off” of the only land-based fish farm in North America 10 months ago in Miami when 1.1 million pounds salmon perished, which he blamed for investor skittishness after the incidents.The company, Atlantic Sapphire, in July 2020 was forced to initiate an emergency harvest of an estimated 200,000 salmon weighing a collective 400 Metric Tons which it blamed on “disruptive construction work close to the operating environment, including loud sounds and severe vibrations,” stressing the fish. And in February 2020, around 227,000 of its salmon died at its pilot farm in Denmark, likely as a result of exposure to high saturated nitrogen levels.

QSJ asked deputy DEP commissioner David Madore whether the agency took into consideration an industry’s history of accidents and other events.

“It would be impossible to make a Permit inclusive of every ‘what if’ situation,” he replied. “However … For aquaculture permits we have a Special Condition that speaks to best management practices that are taken from the Federal Concentrated Aquatic Animal Production (CAAP) regs that include items such as training of personnel, spill management, and storage of chemicals onsite. There may be other specific Operation and Maintenance items for other categories of discharge.”

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