CASTINE — Town selectmen voted 2-1 on Monday evening to give Maine Maritime Academy 30 days to come into compliance with the town’s noise ordinance or face fines of $100 per day after several residents complained about noise and vibrations from the school’s docked training ship.
Asheesh Misra, who lives nearby, said he’d only felt similar vibrations during punk music concerts when he was younger.
“That was the only time I’ve ever felt my body vibrate like that,” he said.
The training ship State of Maine has normally headed off on a cruise by now to allow some students to accrue final hours of sea time and experience required by the U.S. Coast Guard in order to obtain their unlimited license credentials, which are tied to their degrees.
But those plans were scrapped because of the pandemic, and the academy received approval from the U.S. Coast Guard in late May to conduct a “cruise” with a total of 60 students, faculty and ship’s crew on board while tied to dock in Castine.
Faculty and crew members will be tested twice for COVID-19 before boarding the ship in a partnership with The Jackson Laboratory. The cruise was scheduled to begin on Wednesday, July 8, and will end on Aug. 4. No one will board or leave during the six-week training period.
But while the ship is docked it has been running its diesel generators, to power things like kitchen equipment and other necessities and will periodically be running its main engines. That’s led to complaints from nearby residents about noise, vibration and pollution, as well as concerns about sewage effluent.
Town Manager Shawn Blodgett acknowledged in a Zoom meeting with the selectmen and residents on Monday evening that there had been four evening violations of the town’s noise ordinance, which prohibits noise levels above 50 decibels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and noise levels above 60 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The readings taken by the town ultimately showed four readings in violation of the nighttime noise limit of 50 decibels. The average of the four was 53.1 decibels.
But resident Merissa Rogers also said the decibel readings have been deceptive, taken “from behind houses, so they’re not actually getting an accurate reading,” and that the noise and vibrations from the ship have made it impossible to sleep.
“[Maine Maritime Academy] is actively working to bring ship noise level down,” said Blodgett, by adding plywood to baffle the sound, and plans to contract with an environmental consulting firm to help figure out how to mitigate the effects of having the ship docked.
Rogers clarified after the meeting that she was referring to readings taken by representatives from Maine Maritime Academy and that she had not observed town officials taking readings.
Blodgett said in a phone call later in the week that he had taken his readings in direct line of sight of the ship without obstructions.
Some residents argued on Monday that a 30-day grace period makes little sense when the dockside “cruise” is slated to be over before that and wondered why the ship couldn’t anchor somewhere away from town.
The 30-day grace period, said Ben Rogers, who owns a home nearby and graduated from MMA, “is a joke.”
“This is seriously affecting a lot of people in the town,” said Rogers, adding that, “The school has had nearly three weeks to prepare for this … We’re a week overdue for reducing the noise.” Fines of $100 per day for a ship worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said Rogers, are negligible.
Several town residents said they would like to see the issue resolved much sooner. Resident Daniel Leader said he can feel the vibrations at his home half a mile up Perkins Street.
“It is very, very disruptive,” said Leader, “to the point where you can’t sleep at night.” Leader said he also worries about the issue of pollution.
Maine Maritime Academy President William Brennan didn’t directly address the pollution issue on Monday evening except to say the ship is required by law to burn low-sulfur fuel. In a follow-up email, he clarified that the ship’s diesel generators consume roughly 1,113 gallons per day or 46.375 gallons per hour.
Blodgett said the town really doesn’t have much in its zoning ordinance to regulate pollution. “We do have a pollution portion of the ordinance but that’s really for ground pollution more than anything else.”
Residents also have raised concerns in emails to the town about sewage treatment.
Brennan said in an email that sewage on the ship “is handled in much the same way that the town of Castine’s wastewater treatment plant handles Castine’s sewage.” Black and gray water receives “tertiary treatment” in two United States Coast Guard-approved marine sanitation devices (MSDs). The third stage of treatment is designed to remove residual toxins and lower high nitrogen and phosphorous levels.
“The two MSDs aboard the ship collect all black water and gray water separately,” said Brennan, “introduce enzymes (bacteria to “eat” the black water waste), it is aerated and finally mixed with gray water in the chlorination chamber and discharged. The Castine sewage is discharged into the harbor via a pipe from the treatment plant.”
Several residents, some of whom are graduates of the academy and professional mariners themselves, wondered why the ship could not anchor in the bay for its training cruise.
Brennan said in an email after the meeting that although testing those on board is a start, “Even the double-testing is not failsafe. Producing positive pressure within the house of the ship, as the ventilation system does, further mitigates the risk of transmission of the virus if it is present. Remaining pier-side allows us to have immediate shoreside support for any issue that may arise, whether it is pandemic-related or otherwise.”
Frustrated residents said they had repeatedly contacted selectmen and MMA representatives but had gotten little response. Selectman Colin Powell said on Monday that he would come speak with the residents and hear the noise and feel the vibrations for himself.
“We’ve never had to deal with something like this before; the ability to force an institution to make changes isn’t in our wheelhouse,” said Powell, who voted in favor of allowing MMA 30 days to deal with the issue.
“There’s not a lot that the town as a selectboard can force the academy to do. We can fine them and ask them to abate it, which we’re doing.”
Powell said that although the move on Monday allows the academy 30 days, he would work to resolve the issue much sooner.
“We love the academy,” said resident Merissa Rogers. “We’re not trying to prevent these kids from graduating. We’re just trying to have a productive discussion to try and make it so we’re not being tortured 24/7.”
Stephen Rappaport contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify a quote.