Fish farm faces opposition

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A fish farm similar to this is being considered for placement in the Gulf of Mexico off the Siesta Key coastline. (Submitted image)

By Rachel Brown Hackney

Attorneys for a group of nine environmental or public interest organizations say the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to issue a permit for a “fish farm” off the Sarasota County coast is misguided.

In their most recent brief, the attorneys maintain that the agency “has consistently failed to evaluate the totality of the project it authorized under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.”

The Sarasota-based Suncoast Waterkeeper is one of the petitioners.

In October, the nonprofit organizations filed their appeal with the Environmental Appeals Board. Located in Washington, D.C., that board “is the final decision maker on administrative appeals under all major environmental statutes that EPA administers,” its website explains.

The permit the EPA issued last year authorizes Ocean Era Inc. of Hawaii “to operate the only industrial ocean finfish farm in U.S. federal waters — in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 45 miles from the coast of Sarasota,” the petitioners’ Feb. 1 brief notes.

The EPA assessed only some of the pollutants the facility would be expected to discharge, the brief continues, “and fails to assess others in accordance with the mandatory factors required by the [U.S. Clean Water Act’s] implementing regulations.”

In the final environmental assessment that the EPA released on the project, the brief adds, the ocean discharge criteria evaluation “does not assess critical discharges authorized by this novel permit, including antibiotics, pathogens, escaped fish, and copper the facility will discharge into the gulf for the first time. Consequently, the full impacts to the receiving waters and to endangered species have never been assessed.”

“Section 402 [of the Clean Water Act] is clear that a NPDES permit may be granted only after EPA applies the standards of the CWA [Clean Water Act] to all pollutants discharged by a permit applicant,” the petitioners argue, with emphasis. “Congress plainly anticipated that its permit program would sweep in all pollutants,” the brief continues. “It did not say permits are only required for the discharge of ‘pollutants of concern’ or unmitigated pollutants, but for ‘any pollutant.’”

On Sept. 30, the EPA approved the permit, which allows the discharge of wastewater from an aquaculture pen dubbed Velella Epsilon. Ocean Era wants to anchor the copper mesh pen at a depth of about 130 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. The facility — with a diameter of 17 meters and a height of 7 meters — would contain about 20,000 almaco jack fish. The 12- to 18-month pilot project would be expected to produce “up to 80,000 pounds of marketable fish,” the EPA explained in its Dec. 18 answer to the environmental groups’ petition.

The EPA also notes in a fact sheet that the maximum amount of feed for the fish has been estimated at 27,268 pounds per month.

“Aquaculture facilities produce and discharge wastes (excess fish feed and fecal material) that contain pollutants, which are defined as including solid waste, biological materials, and industrial waste,” the EPA fact sheet notes. “Accordingly, marine finfish aquaculture operations are point sources that discharge pollutants and are required to obtain NPDES permits.”

In the Feb. 1 brief, the petitioners also allege that the “EPA’s ODCE [Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation] failed to address one of the 10 mandatory factors with regards to phosphorus, nitrogen, and antibiotic discharges: ‘the potential impact of the discharge on human health through direct and indirect pathways. … This omission was particularly glaring,” the petitioners add, “as the very definition of ‘unreasonable degradation’ [in the Clean Water Act] includes ‘any threat to human health through direct exposure to pollutants or through consumption of exposed aquatic organisms.’ … EPA acknowledges the potential of antibiotic discharges to contribute to antibiotic resistance … and the potential of harmful algal blooms to ‘directly or indirectly cause illness in people.’ … Yet,” the petitioners point out, “EPA again argues that mitigation measures will render these discharges ‘minimal,’ but fails to point to any such discussion of potential health impacts in the ODCE.”

Further, the petitioners argue, “The ODCE contains no analysis of location-specific impacts of antibiotic use in the Gulf of Mexico or from a similar offshore net pen facility. Instead, EPA refers only to studies from around the world, such as Japan, Norway, and the Puget Sound, all of which are more than 30 years old.”

In its Dec. 18 answer to the petitioners’ initial brief, the EPA contended, “While the ODCE recognizes that other studies have noted the potential for development of antibiotic resistance from use at fish farms, especially at facilities with a practice of heavy antibiotic use or in laboratory studies that did not mimic environmental conditions, the ODCE further indicates that the potential for resistance to develop appears to depend on the nature of the practices at a facility and the environmental conditions. … Ultimately, based on the analysis in the ODCE, the transfer of drug resistance from fish to human pathogenic bacteria appears unlikely.”

The EPA also argued that the petitioners “have not demonstrated that there will be ‘significant adverse changes’ to ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability of the biological community in or near the area of the discharge. Nor have they identified a threat to human health through ‘direct exposure to pollutants or through consumption of exposed aquatic organisms.’”

 A new rule that went into effect on Sept. 21 “to streamline and modernize” the EPA’s permit process says the Environmental Appeals Board must issue a final decision 60 days after an appeal “has been fully briefed and argued. The [board] may grant itself a one-time 60-day extension if it determines that the nature and complexity of the case requires additional time.”

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