KBCS Blog

Aquaculture Facilities in Alaska General Permit

Tags

Aquaculture Facilities in Alaska General Permit, Permit

Angela Hunt
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Division of Water
Wastewater Discharge Authorization Program
555 Cordova Street
Anchorage, AK 99501

Regarding: Aquaculture Facilities in Alaska General Permit, Permit No. AKG130000

Dear Ms. Hunt:

Kachemak Bay Conservation Society (KBCS) is a thirty-five year old nonprofit based in Homer, Alaska. Our mission is to protect the environment of the Kachemak Bay region and greater Alaska by encouraging sustainable use and stewardship of natural resources through advocacy, education, information, and collaboration. Permitting for aquaculture facilities is of utmost importance to our constituents and the public. Here in Kachemak Bay, there is a hatchery in Tutka Bay that citizen science has shown to lower dissolved oxygen levels; it issues discharge that leave sludge floating on the water surface; this past October it became public that the septic system broke and released septic into Tutka Bay; this past summer thousands and thousands of hatchery fish did not get caught and died all around Tutka. We are left to imagine how many hatchery fish go up other wild streams to denigrate wild genetic stocks. We are left to imagine what the dissolved oxygen (DO) levels are around Tutka Bay might be; we are left to imagine the impact of this sludge, lowered DO, and other unknown discharges such as chlorine. We are left to imagine the impact of the uptick in nitrogen from the decomposing fish. What is happening on the sea floor? What is happening to the food web that keeps all of Tutka Bay alive? What is happening to wild fish? We want this and other hatcheries around the state to be transparent and accountable to federal and state law. This permit is our chance to do this.  

We write with mixed feelings toward the draft of the general permit for aquaculture facilities in Alaska. A five-year permit for the entire state for an industry releasing between 1.4 and 1.7 billion juveniles per year is a big permit and deserves careful consideration. The issue of hatcheries in Alaska is highly controversial because so many salmon are released around the state, and there has been shockingly little research on their effect on wild stocks via competition and straying, as well as to the broader ecosystems where they feed and to which they return and where they rot. We are glad to see that monitoring of the facilities will be mandated, that some consideration is shown for the damage caused by chlorine, ammonia, lack of dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, settleable solids, nitrogen, phosphorus and polychrolinated biphenlys. As noted in your Fact Sheet draft, these substances all cause mortality. Our concerns with the permit however are grave. In short, the standards for clean operation are far too vague, and the standards for monitoring are far too low. In both cases, there seems to be backsliding vis a vie  the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit, Permit No. 9640-DB005. We begin with a general exposition of these problems, and go on to address specific language in the draft.  

First, the wide variance between sites where aquaculture facilitates operate render a general permit unacceptable. There are simply too many differences between facilities and the locations where they operate. Here in Homer, there is a clear example of this: we have a hatchery in Katchemak Bay State Park; it also lies within the boundaries of Katchemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat. Surely the rules that apply to this facility cannot apply to other facilities and visa versa. This is just one example of the need for individualized permits.

Second, the complete absence of numeric standards in this permit borders on the absurd. In many instances a simple numeric value is the most logical guideline. Even absent numbers, a greater degree of specificity and clarity could be easily achieved. Guidelines must be firmed up if this permit is to be more than a formality. What is “proper”? What is “reasonable”? These questions come up over and over as one reads the draft. It is easy to imagine aquaculture facilities bending the words of the general permit to comply with its letter but not its spirit. Furthermore, there seems to be a strong case that some of the standards in this new permit qualify as backsliding. Obviously something DEC should be concerned about. In a number of instances, a numeric value must be maintained to comply with anti-backsliding law. Given the nature and volume of the discharges subject to this permit, given the richness of the environments where dumping occurs, Tutka Bay, Esther Island, Baranof Island...the state of Alaska has much to lose. Hatcheries don’t need a free pass. Hatcheries need to be transparent about how they operate, and we Alaskans need to know what their impact is. Even if industry may oppose transparency and data-collection, we maintain that it is in their interest. Degraded waters will catch up with them. Presumably they wish to continue operations for many years to come.

Third, according to this permit and fact sheet, DEC knows very little about the quality of water being discharged and in receiving bodies. Why is that the case? It is gravely problematic that in a number of instances, it is stated that baselines will be gathered during this permit cycle, for example, you state:

Because this is the first issuance of the general permit, DEC does not have historical monitoring data from hatcheries needed to conduct a RPA [reasonable potential analysis]. The general permit requires hatcheries to monitor for several water quality parameters (TSS, SS, pH, ammonia, DO, and chlorine) to generate data for use in conducting a RPA during the next permit cycle.

In another instance, the Fact Sheet states that a Tier 2 analysis on receiving waters is being conducted. Where is this being conducted? At each facility? What are the results? Why is this only being conducted now? How can a five-year state-wide permit be issued without completion of analysis? We need a good answer. KBCS demands, at the very least, that DEC bar the permitting on expansion of any aquaculture facility in the state of Alaska until the basic information on influent, effluent and receiving waters has been firmly established. To do otherwise runs counter to the mandate of antidegradation. No expansion of facilities can be granted until there is sufficient data for an RPA. Any thinking person would see that it is logical that no permit for operations can be granted at all until an RPA is created, and that no RPA can be granted until sufficient data has been collected. This is no small matter. It is outrageous and bizarre that DEC has determined that recieving waters may be “assumed to have water quality that exceeds Alaska’s WQS,” and then to go on to state that “the localized lowering of water quality is necessary” all without knowing the local or general water quality. This is not acceptable for a state agency.

Fourth, aquaculture facilities have been allowed to operate for several decades without the most basic state-mandated monitoring and reporting systems in place. Antidegradation policy must start now. We need as much data as we can get as soon as possible. It appears that the DEC is willing to wait 5 years before establishing baselines, and in the meantime will allow aquaculture operations to continue unchanged. KBCS demands far more expedient and wide-ranging data collection. DEC’s permit must require the collection more data more quickly on both influent, effluent, receiving bodies, and of the seafloor and the benthic conditions there. Monitoring must be conducted on the variables outlined in the permit. In addition, monitoring must be conducted on what the Clean Water Act, section 117 calls the living resources of the site: “grasses, benthos, phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, and shellfish.” When these living recourses are degraded, the entire system suffers and often never recovers.  In all cases, samples and/or photographs and GPS points are necessary. Any evidence gathered by the facilities must be checked: unannounced state visits for monitoring operations are necessary at the very least.

Lastly, we believe that this permit is fundamentally flawed in its disregard for the EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria. For an example of a permit that considers these criteria, we consider DEC permit Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation of Alaska Ship and Drydock, LCC., Permit Number: AK0045675. This permit is valid for a drydock along the Tongass Narrows waterfront and midway across Tongass Narrows in Ketchikan. Any standard that applies to these locations would apply to aquaculture facilities. The present permit for aquaculture facilities must adopt the format of this drydock permit, in consideration of the Ocean Discharge Criteria. I quote at length from the Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation of Alaska Ship and Drydock, LCC. permit:

EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria, 40 CFR Part 125, Subpart M, set forth specific determinations of unreasonable degradation that must be made prior to permit issuance. “Unreasonable degradation of the marine environment” is defined in 40 CFR 125.121(e) as follows [emphasis added]:

  1. Significant adverse changes in ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability of the biological community within the area of discharge and surrounding biological communities,
  2. Threat to human health through direct exposure to pollutants or through consumption of exposed aquatic organisms, or
  3. Loss of esthetic, recreational, scientific or economic values which is unreasonable in relation to the benefit derived from the discharge.

This determination is to be made on the basis of considering the following 10 criteria (40 CFR 125.122):

  1. The quantities, composition and potential for bioaccumulation or persistence of the pollutants to be discharged;
  2. The potential transport of such pollutants by biological, physical or chemical processes;
  3. The composition and vulnerability of the biological communities, which may be exposed to such pollutants, including the presence of unique species or communities of species, the presence of species identified as threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), or the presence of those species critical to the structure or function of the ecosystem, such as those important for the food chain;
  4. The importance of the receiving water area to the surrounding biological community, including the presence of spawning sites, nursery/forage areas, migratory pathways, or areas necessary for other functions or critical stages in the life cycle of an organism;
  5. The existence of special aquatic sites including, but not limited to marine sanctuaries and refuges, parks, national and historic monuments, national seashores, wilderness areas and coral reefs;
  6. The potential impacts on human health through direct and indirect pathways;
  7. Existing or potential recreational and commercial fishing, including finfishing and shellfishing;
  8. Any applicable requirements of an approved Coastal Zone Management Plan;
  9. Such other factors relating to the effects of the discharge as may be appropriate; and
  10. Marine water quality criteria developed pursuant to Section 304(a)(1).

The aquaculture permit draft appears to violate the EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria. No permit can be issued without consideration of the above. No consideration of the above has been shown. The only way to consider the above is to gather data and analyze it. This must be rectified.  

The Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation of Alaska Ship and Drydock, LCC. permit, states, for example under Critirion 3 the need for the protection of “those species critical to the structure or function of the ecosystem, such as those important for the food chain.” The same is true for aquaculture facilities.  The Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation of Alaska Ship and Drydock, LCC permit also states, under Criterion 2, the current speeds near the surface and near the bottom. This same information is needed before issuing the aquaculture permit.  Criterion 4 in the Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation of Alaska Ship and Drydock, LCC permit recognizes “The importance of the receiving water area to the surrounding biological community, including the presence of spawning sites, nursery/forage areas, migratory pathways, or areas necessary for other functions or critical stages in the life cycle of an organism.” The same is true for hatcheries, which are often located near wild salmon streams. There is highly worrisome evidence to suggest that these hatcheries are damaging wild salmon streams through significant straying rates. Criterion 5 is also relevant in this case: “The existence of special aquatic sites including, but not limited to, marine sanctuaries and refuges, parks, national and historic monuments, national seashores, wilderness areas and coral reefs.”

Comments on specific language in the Permit:

2.1.1.1 Employ efficient feed management and feeding strategies that limit feed input to the minimum amount reasonably necessary to achieve production goals and sustain targeted rates of aquatic animal growth in order to minimize potential discharges of uneaten feed and waste products to waters of the U.S.

The State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit, Permit No. 9640-DB005 sets a numeric limit on total suspended solids and settleable solids. The absence of a numeric limit in this permit is a case of backsliding. It must be stated more specifically what qualifies as “minimum discharge”: Samples must be collected and analyzed for parts per million for settleable solids and suspended solids for both effluent discharge and receiving waters. The same comment applies for wherever this language on feed management and feeding strategies occurs, e.g. 2.2.1.1 and 2.3.1.

2.2.1 Solids Control - Permittees must minimize the discharge of solids to waters of the U.S. by implementing the following measures...

Again, the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit, Permit No. 9640-DB005 sets a numeric limit on total suspended solids and settleable solids. The absence of a numeric limit in this permit is a case of backsliding. The same applies for all facilities, including net pens.

2.1.3 Managing Spills - Permittees must implement procedures for properly containing, cleaning, and disposing of any spilled material

The language on spills everywhere it occurs must be much more specific. “Proper containment, cleaning, and disposing spilled material” is required pursuant to what standard? Within what timeframe? Here, as elsewhere the absence of a baseline for water quality and is a glaring problem. EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria  requires the evaluation and protection of “ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability of the biological community within the area of discharge and surrounding biological communities.”  This standard must be met. Data is needed to evaluate spills. “Clean” must be established before the facility can say that the waters are “clean.” We Alaskans don’t want to hear, “Oh, there must have always been ammonia in these waters...” Requirements must be set for clean up procedures and standards. The term “reporting” should also be included: “properly reporting, containing, cleaning...”. Additionally, the facility must be tasked with an analysis of why a spill occurred and demonstrate that measures have been taken to prevent reoccurrence.  The same applies for all facilities, including net pens.

2.1.5 Recordkeeping - Permittees must keep records at the facility documenting the following:

Every step taken in to meet the standards of this permit must be documented. Eery violation of standards set in this permit must be documented. Remedies must be documented. The same must apply for all facilities, including net pens (currently smaller facilities are exempt from recordkeeping).

2.2 Flow Through and Recirculating Facilities Producing 20,000 to 100,000 Pounds Total Annual Release Weight from the Facility

The same standards for structural maintenance, recordkeeping, and training used for larger facilities must apply.

2.3.6.3 prevent concentrated bottom settling

What does concentrated bottom settling look like? How can it be documented and monitored? How long should it take to clear out? Within what area should bottom settling be monitored? Samples of the seafloor must be collected weekly. The same applies wherever bottom settling is mentioned.

2.3.9.1 Each new net pen facility must be situated in a location with adequate current velocity relative to depth from the bottom of the net pens to the sea floor to avoid degradation of water quality and benthic conditions below the nets.

One might say that if you can’t see accumulation below the net pen, everything is A-OK. That seems to be the assumption here. How much current is enough current? We need a number. How do we know it is enough current? We need data on the benthos and broader food web, as mandated by EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria. Given that hatcheries have not been charged with established baselines for benthic conditions and water quality, they have already gotten a free pass. It would appear that past permits have violated the law on many counts. Any degradation that may have occurred in all the decades of operation has not been documented. How can hatcheries “avoid degradation of water quality and benthic conditions” if they do not monitor those conditions? Benthic conditions must be monitored. State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit, Permit No. 9640-DB005 requires flow metering. The lack of a numeric metering in this permit is a case of backsliding. The same applies wherever current velocity or flow is mentioned.

3.2 Flow Through and Recirculating Facilities

Sample frequency should be increased: more data points in a shorter time will help track fluctuations under different conditions, and will help monitors spot problems more quickly. There is no reason not to monitor weekly or daily. State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit, Permit No. 9640-DB005 requires flow metering and sets numeric limits on total suspended solids, settable solids, pH, residual chlorine, and dissolved oxygen. The lack of a numeric metering and limits in this permit is a case of backsliding.

3.2.1 Receiving Water Monitoring - Permittees must monitor the receiving waterbody once per calendar year as specified in Table 3.

These standards are far too low. Why are they so low? Receiving water monitoring must include total suspended solids, settable solids, pH, salinity, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, and total residual chlorine. EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria sets the bar. Samples must be collected weekly so conditions can be understood as quickly as possible. Unannounced visits must be put in place to help keep everybody honest.

Receiving water monitoring must occur on chlorine, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, settleable solids, nitrogen, phosphorus at least monthly and in multiple, strategic sites chosen by DEC around the facility so that flow and settling can be better understood and broader effects on “ecosystem diversity, productivity and stability of the biological community within the area of discharge and surrounding biological communities” can be understood and monitored. Parameters for the location of testing must be established by the DEC at varying depths, a specified number and distance between, testing sites. We cannot assume that sufficient water flow is occurring to diffuse discharge (as this permit seems to do). The effects on receiving waters and the ecosystems they harbor must be shown through monitoring.

This is not undue burden. Even the smaller of these facilities are operating at scales that warrant monitoring. Furthermore, the absence of  baselines needs to be remedied if we are even to pretend to care about antidegradation. We must monitor to a high degree particularly at the outset of this permit to establish antidegradation standards.

Numeric limits must be set on all measures monitored. Corrective action must be taken immediately if limits are exceeded. All must be recorded.

3.2.2 Disinfection Water

Antibacksliding law prohibits backsliding on the limits set on chlorine established in the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater General Permit.

3.3.2 Within 15 days prior to release of the aquatic animals each season, permittees must visually assess the benthos for the following and keep records documenting the results:

3.3.2.1 Sediment type and color, including an assessment for anoxic sediments;

3.3.2.2 The presence of feed or other debris originating from the net pen enhancement facility; and

3.3.2.3 The presence of benthic bacterial or fungal mats. Provide an estimate of the percent coverage of these mats beneath the net pen and within 150 feet of its perimeter.

3.3.3 At least once per week during the period when the aquatic animals occupy the net, visually assess the water column around the nets for floating debris or other sign of solids, sheens, or discoloration originating from the net pens and keep records documenting the results.

In all of the above categories, samples, photographs or some visual or physical documentation must be required. Numeric limits must be set. Corrective action must be required, and documented to counter sheens, discoloration, presence of benthic bacterial of fungal mats.

4.3 Ground Carcass Disposal

Limits on parts per million total suspended solids in receiving waters must be included here.

4.3.7.1 Site-specific information about receiving water bathymetry, current or flows, and the historic effects of past discharges on water quality.

Numeric limits must be set on flow. Antibacksliding law demands this. The requirement of giving information on “historic effects of past discharges on water quality” must specify the variables to be tracked: chlorine, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, total suspended solids, settleable solids, nitrogen, phosphorus must be addressed.  

6.1.1.1 Purchasing procedures that give preference for food that contains the lowest amount of PCBs that is economically and practically feasible

Mandated stepwise reduction of PCBs with numeric targets is the only way to achieve the desired outcome. Increasing cost recovery must be considered in the assessment of economic feasibility. PCBs are illegal for a reason. The DEC must protect US waters from PCBs.

We believe our comments to be conservative, rational and common-sense. Most importantly, we simply ask that state and federal law be upheld by the DEC. Our comments reflect a value for all that is wild in the state of Alaska, a value shared by a great majority of our citizens. If we kill our waters, they will not come back. Aquaculture facilities will suffer at least as much as the rest of us. They benefit from regulation. If finances are the least concern, cost recovery may simply be increased. We owe it to our kids and grandkids, your kids and grandkids, who may want to go fish for wild salmon, or go tide-pooling.

Sincerely,

Roberta Highland

President, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society