TRENTON — Opponents of a proposed oyster farm in Goose Cove that has received both state and federal approval are pinning their hopes of stopping its development on the willingness of U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine to take up their cause.
“If that doesn’t work and he doesn’t look into this thoroughly, then our options are narrowed,” said Bill Stockman, a leader of the Trenton citizens group formed to oppose the oyster farm.
He said the group has been advised that any legal action they might take would be an extreme long shot.
“I think the only other step we could possibly take … is to go to the executive branch of the federal government, to the president and the heads of the agencies that are involved in these activities,” Stockman said.
Warren Pettegrow first proposed his Acadia Sea Farms operation – a 50-acre oyster farm with as many as 5,000 cages – in 2010. The Maine Department of Marine Resources granted Pettegrow a five-year lease in January 2012 on the condition that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also give its consent. The Army Corps issued a permit in March of this year following extensive consultations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The oyster farm would be below the flight path of planes landing on the main runway at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport. Opponents of the farm say the oyster cages would attract gulls and other sea birds that would pose a significant hazard to low-flying aircraft.
The Trenton Board of Selectmen voted several years ago to oppose the oyster farm proposal. Last month, the Hancock County Commissioners did the same. The Mount Desert Board of Selectmen followed suit last week. More than a few of that town’s seasonal residents have private planes that fly into and out of the airport in Trenton.
Airport Manager Brad Madeira also has expressed concern about a safety hazard for aircraft flying over the oyster farm.
The group of Trenton residents, called Citizens for a Safe Airport, and members of the board of selectmen contend that the FAA did not adequately consider the potential safety hazard and, in fact, ignored its own rules regarding the proximity of airports to aquaculture operations. They cite an FAA advisory that states: “For all airports, the FAA recommends a distance of five statute miles between the farthest edge of the airports AOA (air operations area) and the hazardous wildlife attractant … .”
But FAA officials have responded that the 5-mile buffer is only a recommendation, not a hard and fast rule.
In an attempt to discover a serious flaw in the oyster farm approval process, Fred Ehrlenbach, chairman of the Trenton selectmen, in late July sent a request to the FAA and Army Corps under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all documents and correspondence related to the oyster farm.
In response, town officials have received a trove of material, some of which indicates the FAA signed off on the application “without doing their due diligence,” according to Selectman Sue Starr. “They haven’t done their homework.”
As a condition of the permit for the oyster farm, the Army Corps required that a study be conducted “to determine a baseline estimate of the number of seabirds likely to be found within the project area.” The study must be repeated annually for three years following installation of the oyster cages to determine their effect on the seabird population in the area.
Pettegrow’s attorney, Doug Chapman, commissioned John Anderson, professor of ecology and natural history at College of the Atlantic, to conduct the baseline study. A COA student did most of the field work, observing seabirds with binoculars, under Anderson’s direction.
Chapman last month declined the Islander’s request for the findings of the baseline study. But the findings were included in the material that Trenton officials received as a result of their FOIA request.
The number of seabirds sighted during the monitoring sessions, each of which lasted 30 to 60 minutes, ranged from four to 161.
Stockman, of Citizens for a Safe Airport, called the seabird survey report “underwhelming.”
“It doesn’t say where [the birds] are seen. It doesn’t say whether they’re flying, or they’re on the ground, or they’re in the flight path.”
Stockman also noted that there are almost no findings for part of the time that the bird survey was to be conducted.
The FOIA material that Trenton officials received includes a Nov. 8, 2013 memo from Anderson, the COA professor, to attorney Chapman in which he apologized for the “missing data.”
“Over the course of the project, there was a switch from monthly reporting to quarterly reporting, and in the course of that switch-over, I got left out of the loop by the student involved …,” Anderson wrote.
He explained that he was away on sabbatical and “neglected to note that I had not had regular updates on the monitoring. If I thought of it at all, I probably assumed that everything was going as expected and that you were receiving reports.”
Stockman said that such a lapse raises additional concerns.
“If that’s the way it is going to be monitored after these [oyster cages] are out there, and there’s a potential of a threat happening, it’s absolutely inexcusable,” he said. “It shows you how shoddy, in a way, the whole process is.”
Town officials have asked members of Maine’s congressional delegation to look into whether the oyster farm application was handled properly by the FAA and Army Corps. They have received a response only from King’s office.
In late July, Starr and Stockman met for an hour in Ellsworth with Scott Wilkinson, one of the senator’s constituent services representatives, to talk about the oyster farm. They came away from that meeting encouraged by Wilkinson’s interest.
But their optimism has since faded. Another member of King’s staff told Starr that he had been in touch with both the FAA and Army Corps and had been assured that all of the proper procedures had been followed in considering and approving the oyster farm application.
On Sept. 4, Ehrlenbach signed a letter, which Starr drafted, appealing directly to King to meet with Trenton officials so they can “show you the documents and illustrate in greater detail why we are convinced that FAA did not do its due diligence.
“This [oyster farm] endeavor clearly contradicts all safety edicts of FAA,” the letter stated.
Stockman said that if King takes the time to review the documents his group and town officials have collected, “He might decide this thing is a little stinky, that something may be wrong.”