Army Corps of Engineers opens public comment period on permit Ocean Era needs from it for the project
Just days after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it plans to issue a permit to Hawaii-based Ocean Era for a pilot “fish farm” off the coast of Sarasota County, representatives of a number of local and national environmental nonprofits have told The Sarasota News Leader they are planning to appeal the decision.
Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) formally has opened a public comment period for anyone wishing to offer thoughts about the permit Ocean Era needs from it to pursue the initiative.
On Oct. 5, the USACE published its public notice, inviting comments through Nov. 4 on Ocean Era’s application for a Section 10 permit, which regards navigation in federal waters. The USACE materials may be reached at the following link: https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/Public-Notices/Article/2371456/saj-2017-03488-sp-krd/.
Section 10, the USACE explains, “prohibits the unauthorized obstruction or alteration of any navigable waterway of the United States (U.S.).”
Ocean Era plans to place 20,000 almaco jack in a metal net in the Gulf of Mexico, which would be deployed on a multi-swivel mooring system with “three concrete deadweight anchors,” the EPA and the USACE explained in a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that they released in April 2019. The cage’s depth would be about 130 feet, an EPA fact sheet says. “The cage will be a copper alloy mesh submersible circular [structure] with a diameter of 17 meters and a height of 7 meters, the fact sheet adds.
Dr. Neal Schleifer of Siesta Key, who has provided public comments during the EPA hearing, pointed out to the News Leader during an Oct. 6 telephone interview that the EPA did not originally plan a public hearing on its permit process. The number of comments it began receiving about the Ocean Era proposal changed agency leaders’ decision, he said. If the USACE receives enough comments, he added, he is hopeful officials at that agency will change course, as well, and conduct a hearing.
Contacted by the News Leader on Oct. 5, Justin Bloom, founder of the Sarasota-based Suncoast Waterkeeper organization, wrote in an email that it is likely that Suncoast Waterkeeper and the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper will appeal the EPA decision on the permit for the fish farm. “There will be a coalition of groups, including Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch,” and, possibly, the Manatee-Sarasota Group of the Sierra Club,” he added.
“I don’t know if the Waterkeepers will join the coalition or appeal separately,” Bloom wrote in his email.
Marianne Cufone, executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, also told the News Leader in an Oct. 5 email, “Recirculating Farms is absolutely planning to appeal the EPA permit, in cooperation with others in the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition. There are so many questions about the process and content of the permit documents,” Cufone pointed out. “It is important for our federal agencies to follow the law, and accurately and completely assess the risks associated with projects they permit, as they are tasked with protecting and managing our natural resources for all of us. Approval of this permit is a failure of the process and it should be reviewed.”
Schleifer of Siesta Key told the News Leader that the EPA “acknowledged that … the great majority [of the comments submitted] were in opposition to the fish farm.”
A formal document the EPA issued along with notice of the permit award to Ocean Era said that it “received approximately 44,500 comments from various interested individuals and parties …”
Especially light of that, Schleifer added, “Many people feel that the response from the EPA was not adequate.”
In line with the remarks from Bloom and Cufone, Schleifer said, “It looks like many different groups and many individuals” will participate in the appeals process.
He also noted the diversity of comments during a Sept. 30 virtual public hearing on the USACE permit, including speakers from many parts of the United States. “I’m impressed with how many people are turning out.”
Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch was among the speakers during that virtual hearing, which the Don’t Cage the Ocean Coalition and Friends of the Earth hosted. When the News Leader asked her about the potential of the city’s joining those appealing the EPA permit, she explained, “Any action we would take as a city would have to be on behalf of the City Commission.”
Although it was too late for her to call for a formal discussion item to be included on the commission’s Oct. 19 agenda, Ahearn-Koch added, she likely would raise the issue during the board members’ comments that day.
Because of the state’s Sunshine Laws regarding public meetings, she noted, “We can’t take a vote” at that time. Nonetheless, she said, “I can certainly put [the topic] out there.”
In response to a News Leader request for comments about the EPA decision, SKA President Catherine Luckner wrote in an Oct. 5 email, “We cannot support anything that may increase risk of ‘red tide’ occurrence.”
She added, “The devastation we experienced in our gulf waters was horrific — for marine life, people and our economy.”
Luckner was referring to the last major red tide event in Southwest Florida, which began in the fall of 2017 and continued into early 2019.
“We feel [the affected] area of the Gulf has been historically prone to these outbreaks of red tide,” Luckner wrote in her email. “Aside from MOTE being a ‘fish egg provider,” Luckner continued, “we’re perplexed as to why this project was placed in the southwest region of the Gulf.”
“EPA’s decision to issue this permit ignores the overwhelming opposition from frontline communities that will be most impacted by the facility,” Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth, wrote in a statement. “The fish farm plans to experiment in the Gulf and in doing so, will push external costs on to the environment and Gulf communities. Recent red tide events and tropical weather patterns make it clear that without a healthy ecosystem, the entire region suffers. Yet EPA’s has prioritized corporate interests over community sentiment and its own mandate to protect the environment,” Templeton added.
“The EPA has failed the public by issuing a permit for an offshore fish farm facility that will flush waste and pollutants into the Gulf and hurt local economies in Florida,” Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel for Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, pointed out in an email the Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition provided the News Leader. “In particular,” Neil added, “fishing businesses in the region that are already struggling will now have to navigate more restricted access to public waters, potential damage to wild fish populations, and the implications of farmed fish saturating the market.”
Facets of the EPA permit award
On Oct. 1, Jeaneanne Gettle, director of the EPA’s Water Division, formally notified Neil Anthony Sims, president and CEO of Ocean Era — formerly Kampachi Farms — that the federal agency had issued the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that the company needs to establish the fish farm about 45 miles west/southwest of Longboat Pass.
An EPA fact sheet explains that, for Clean Water Act purposes, the federal waters in the Gulf extend from a 3-mile boundary off the coastline of each Gulf state to 200 miles offshore. “In the vicinity of the facility,” the fact sheet continues, “the Gulf is not considered an impaired water [as defined in the Clean Water Act] and is not subject to any total maximum daily load [of nutrients] (TMDL).”
A Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) that the EPA issued in conjunction with the permit said the agency “is required to comply with the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in issuing NPDES permits under section 402 of the [Clean Water Act] CWA for ‘new sources,’ as defined in section 306 of the CWA. The proposed [Vellela Epsilon] facility does not meet the definition of a ‘new source’ under section 306,” the FONSI continued, “and therefore is exempt from NEPA compliance” under a different section of the CWA “and is not subject to NEPA analysis requirements.”
As documented in the final Environmental Assessment, the FONSI said, the environmental review process the EPA conducted “indicates that no significant environmental impacts are anticipated from the proposed action. … The issuance of the NPDES permit to the applicant will not cause a significant environmental impact to water quality or result in any other significant impacts to human health or the environment,” the FONSI added.
The NPDES permit formally authorizes Ocean Era to discharge wastewater from an aquatic animal production facility producing up to 80,000 pounds per year, according to the EPA fact sheet accompanying the permit decision. The maximum amount of feed given to the fish each month has been estimated at 27,268 pounds, the EPA fact sheet points out.
Details Ocean Era submitted about the pilot project, called “Velella Epsilon,” say each of the fish is expected to achieve a size of approximately 4.4 pounds.
The juvenile fish, the EPA said, would be “sourced from brood stock that are located at Mote Aquaculture Research Park and were caught in the Gulf near Madeira Beach, Florida. … Following harvest, cultured fish would be landed in Florida and sold to federally-licensed dealers in accordance with state and federal laws.”
The EPA issued a six-page document with all the facets of the appeals process for the Ocean Era permit. Any person who filed comments on the draft permit or participated in the Jan. 28 public hearing may appeal “by filing a Petition for Review with the Clerk [of the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board],” that document adds. “The issues raised in the appeal must have been raised during the public comment period so long as they were reasonably ascertainable,” the document continues.
A person may write to the Clerk of the Board, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Appeals Board, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (Mail Code 1103M), Washington, D.C. 20460-0001. The board’s phone number is 202-233-0122; and its fax number is 202-233-0121.
For electronic filing of documents, the EPA Appeals Board offers detailed instructions at this link.