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American Aquafarms’ wastewater plan challenged

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Modeler says American Aquafarms' release of nitrogen-rich effluent would far exceed state standards and threaten marine life in Frenchman Bay

By Letitia Baldwin

February 2, 2022


BAR HARBOR — A Rhode Island University oceanography professor, who has studied how water circulates in coastal estuaries like Frenchman Bay for nearly 30 years, used his own computer model to predict the impact of American Aquafarms’ combined discharge of 4.1 billion gallons of diluted wastewater daily from its two 15-pen sites.

He not only contends that the bay’s water quality would greatly deteriorate over time, but that the Norwegian-backed company’s release of nitrogen-rich effluent would far exceed state standards and threaten marine life in the waterbody.

At an online Jan. 25 meeting, Frenchman Bay United President and longtime Sorrento summer resident Henry Sharpe presented University of Rhode Island oceanographer and currents modeler Chris Kincaid’s latest findings regarding American Aquafarms’ projected discharge of filtered wastewater at the company’s two proposed sites off Bald Rock Ledge and Long Porcupine Island.

Sharpe, a retired design engineer who previously worked for over a decade with Kincaid in the University of Rhode Island’s School of Oceanography, had asked his former colleague to expand on his earlier data presented at a Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) public meeting about the 120-acre project Oct. 28.

At that time, the data showed that most of the proposed salmon farm’s released wastewater not only did not exit Frenchman Bay, but the filtered particles flowed to the 14-mile-wide bay’s upper reaches where fragile eelgrass beds serve as nurseries, temporary shelter and food source for a wide variety of marine organisms.

That picture contradicts American Aquafarms’ contention that the 4 billion gallons of filtered wastewater would be diluted a dozen times and largely flow out of Frenchman Bay. That scenario is based on Portland-based Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists’ 2020 study in which Senior Project Manager Elizabeth Ransom and civil engineer and computer modeler Nathan Dill conducted extensive manual and remote sensor testing in Frenchman Bay. The computer model, Cormix, was used to study wastewater’s dispersal, dilution and drift over time.

Now Kincaid’s prior picture has sharpened and expanded. His latest in-depth modeling for Frenchman Bay United, a 412-member coalition of groups and individuals opposing the Frenchman Bay project, found the filtered wastewater not only doesn’t leave Frenchman Bay, but it actually recirculates back to the Bald Rock and Long Porcupine Island sites in the course of 10 days. He used the high-resolution Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) and virtual drifters, which are devices designed to drift with the currents, to track the effluent’s expansion and growing concentrations throughout the bay for just over a month. Use of the ROMS modeling system showed how these concentrations containing nitrogen and other dissolved chemicals grow, spike and surpass the maximum nitrogen level permitted for wastewater discharge under state law.

Kincaid is well qualified to probe and second-guess the picture put forth by American Aquafarms. The oceanographer served as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s currents modeler for its 2021 study of climate change in the Northeast Shelf from Nova Scotia to New York. That survey included Frenchman Bay. He has studied coastal estuaries in Narragansett Bay and numerous other waterbodies.

At last week’s meeting, Sharpe also described American Aquafarms’ aim to use the most efficient ratio of fish feed – the amount of fish food versus total pounds of salmon – to minimize excess nutrients in its discharge as unrealistic. Using the farmed salmon industry’s average ratio, Sharpe said, makes more sense for a start-up venture. Still, even using the more conservative average ratio, he noted, the proposed salmon operation’s wastewater would contain 39 percent more nitrogen and would far exceed the permitted threshold of 20 percent under state law, according to Kincaid’s latest ROMS data.

“If you put more food in the water,” Sharpe told the 155 people attending the Jan. 25 session, “you put more nutrients in the water.”

Sharpe said Kincaid’s earlier and latest findings have been submitted to the DEP scientists who have been in touch directly with the Rhode Island oceanographer. “The good news is the DEP deems him [Kincaid] as credible and the issues raised as legitimate.”

At the Jan. 25 meeting, Acadia National Park Administrative Assistant John Kelly outlined the National Park Service’s position on American Aquafarms’ proposed venture, saying it is based on scientific facts such as those generated by Sharpe and Kincaid. As an abutter to the salmon farm, Kelly says the project affects Acadia on and around Frenchman Bay. He noted the park’s reach extends across Frenchman to the Schoodic Peninsula and also includes conservation easements on Preble, Jordan and Ironbound islands located in the inlet. Whether it’s wind turbines, cell towers or The Jackson Laboratory’s expansion, Acadia’s former longtime planner said, NPS has the right and resources to protect its assets.

“It’s not unusual for us to be involved in this way,” Kelly said, given the “scale and development of this development.”

Friends of Acadia President and CEO Dave MacDonald echoed Kelly, saying American Aquafarms’ potential impacts are numerous and not just limited to how the industrial-scale project would alter visitors’ view from the Cadillac Mountain summit. He noted the salmon farm’s diesel exhaust would further jeopardize Acadia’s air quality.

“There is no single Acadia experience,” MacDonald said. “It’s not just Cadillac, it’s not just Thunder Hole. Frenchman Bay is a big part of it.”

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