TRENTON — Having received all of the necessary permits, Warren Pettegrow plans to begin installation of his oyster farm in Goose Cove by the end of the summer, according to his attorney.
But opponents of the project are still looking for a way to stop it.
Both the Trenton board of selectmen and Hancock County Commissioners have appealed to members of Maine’s congressional delegation to look into whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ignored its own safety standards in failing to block the project. Brad Madeira, manager of the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, also has expressed serious concerns.
The 50-acre oyster farm – two 25-acre parcels – would be directly under the flight path of planes landing or taking off on the airport’s main runway. Opponents of the project worry that seagulls attracted by the oyster cages would pose a significant safety hazard.
Pettegrow, whose family owns the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, first proposed the Acadia Sea Farms aquaculture operation in 2010. He said in his lease application to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) that he eventually wanted to raise up to 10 million oysters in as many as 5,000 cages.
The DMR granted 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 consultations with the FAA.
Oyster farm opponents argue that the FAA could and should have stopped the project because of the threat it poses to aviation safety.
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 airport’s AOA (air operations area) and the hazardous wildlife attractant if the attractant could cause hazardous wildlife movement into or across the approach or departure airspace.”
One of the 25-acre oyster farm parcels planned for Goose Cove would be 1.5 miles from the end of the main runway in Trenton; the other would be 2.1 miles away.
In June 2011, Frank Del Giudice, chief of the permits and enforcement branch of the Army Corps’ New England district, said in a letter to Pettegrow that the FAA opposed the oyster farm because of its proximity to the airport.
“The Corps places great importance on the comments of a sister federal agency, particularly one with clear authority, regulations and policies related to public safety,” Del Giudice wrote.
He recommended that Pettegrow withdraw his permit application.
In 2013, Trenton selectmen filed a request with the FAA and Army Corps under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all documents and correspondence related to the oyster farm application.
One of those documents was a Dec. 10, 2012 email from LeeAnn Neal, senior project manager for the Army Corps in Maine, to Douglas Chapman, Pettegrow’s attorney. In it, she listed six conditions that must be met “in the event a Corps of Engineers permit is issued.”
The first condition was 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 would have to be repeated every year for three years following installation of the oyster cages.
Another condition was that Pettegrow must take “all available and practicable steps to discourage the attraction of seabirds to the aquaculture facility.”
Neal told Chapman that the Army Corps and FAA would coordinate “to determine whether any new management measures are required to minimize attraction of seabirds… .”
Chapman responded to Neal about two hours after receiving her email:
I would like to convey to you that the applicant and his advisors welcome the six conditions outlined for a ACE [Army Corps of Engineers] permit.
In fact, Pettegrow’s advisors already had commissioned a year-long study of the number of gulls in the Goose Cove area, and that study had begun two months earlier, on Oct. 15, 2012.
Asked Monday if he or anyone representing Pettegrow had proposed that the Army Corps make the study a condition for the permit, Chapman said, “It was so long ago I don’t remember.”
The study was conducted primarily by a College of the Atlantic student under the direction of John Anderson, professor of ecology and natural history at COA.
A description of the study submitted to the Army Corps said the intent was “to assist in determining whether the proposed facility is likely to attract or does attract significant numbers of gulls, to an extent that such an increase could pose a hazard to aircraft… .”
The findings of the study were reported to the Army Corps and FAA, but have not been made public. Chapman declined the Islander’s request for the report on the study’s findings.
On July 29, Fred Ehrlenbach, chairman of the Trenton selectmen, sent an FOIA request to the FAA and Army Corps for all documents related to the oyster farm dated after those agencies provided the materials initially requested under FOIA in 2013.
He also wrote to Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, and to 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin, asking them to intervene.
“The few documents that have come to light simply raise more questions about how the applicant [Pettegrow] and his attorney were able to maneuver through the federal process and sell this as a safe activity to the FAA and [Army Corps], all without allowing the public the opportunity to review or rebut the applicant’s claims,” Ehrlenbach wrote.
“We ask that you immediately attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding the federal level approval and permitting process.”
Madeira, the airport manager, sent an email July 8 to FAA and Army Corps officials in which he expressed concerns about the oyster farm as a potential safety hazard. Noting that as a condition of Pettegrow’s permit, he must conduct annual studies of the number of seagulls in the area, Madeira wrote, “I find this passive, after-the-fact approach to be very disappointing considering the safety risk to the flying public and to people on the ground.”
He also questioned the objectivity of the seabird studies: “Having the permitee conduct the pre and post studies presents a huge conflict of interest in my opinion.”
Madeira told the FAA and Army Corps officials that only time will tell whether the number of gulls in the area will significantly increase following installation of the oyster cages.
“Given the nature of the activity being proposed, though, it is difficult to foresee any other outcome,” he said. “I sincerely hope that I am wrong about that. Given the guidance that is prescribed in [the Army Corps advisory on hazardous wildlife attractants], I am surprised that the [Army Corps] with the FAA’s assistance allowed this to be permitted at all.”
Trenton Selectman Sue Starr also faults federal officials for approving the oyster farm and for what she said was a lack of transparency in the permitting process.
“Our feeling is that either the FAA didn’t do its job or there is some other aspect of this that we’re not seeing that [indicates] FAA believes this is safe,” she said. “But how can they believe it’s safe, because that contradicts everything that they’ve written in the past?”
The Army Corps has imposed a number of conditions on the operation of the oyster farm in addition to the six initially listed. One of those conditions is that “oyster grow-out cages and floats will remain entirely below the water surface at all times, except for routine maintenance, seeding, harvesting and processing of oysters.”
The permit issued by the Maine DMR would have required that the cages remain on the surface of the water.
Bill Stockman, a leader of a citizens group that opposes the oyster farm, acknowledged that requiring the cages to be underwater most of time is an improvement.
“That makes it less likely to be a continuous threat,” he said.
Even so, his group, formed five years ago as Friends of Goose Cove and now called Citizens for a Safe Airport, remains staunchly against the oyster farm.
Stockman and Starr met two weeks ago in Ellsworth with Scott Wilkinson, one of Sen. King’s constituent services representatives, to request the senator’s help. They said they were encouraged by Wilkinson’s interest.
On Aug. 4, the Hancock County Commissioners voted to oppose the oyster farm project after Ehrlenbach, Starr and Stockman met with them to detail their concerns. The commissioners are sending letters stating their objection to the FAA, Army Corps and members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
More than two years ago, on March 6, 2013, Chapman, the attorney representing Pettegrow, emailed a letter to Collins, King and then-Rep. Mike Michaud, thanking them and their staff “for working with Acadia Sea Farms and myself as its attorney in support and endorsement of Acadia Sea Farms’ proposed oyster farm in Goose Cove.”
The following day, Chapman received an email response from Carol Woodcock, Collins’ state office representative.
“Senator Collins’s staff has not been briefed on this project by you or anyone else, and our knowledge of the proposal is extremely limited,” she wrote.
“We have never expressed support or endorsement of this proposal, and I would greatly appreciate your sending out another letter making this correction.”