Water quality standards would be relaxed along more than 90 percent of the Maine coast under a legislative proposal backed by operators of sewage treatment plants that can’t meet the current standards.
A bill to be debated today by the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee would lower the standards for the amount of bacteria and dissolved oxygen in the water and put Maine’s lobster population at risk, environmentalists and lobstermen say.
“This could have a significant impact on the lobster industry because lobsters are very sensitive to low dissolved oxygen levels,” said Nick Bennett, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “and this could allow significantly increased pollution at sewage treatment plants all across the coast of Maine.”
But a wastewater treatment official said the changes are needed to avoid expensive upgrades at some coastal sewage treatment plants that are having trouble meeting existing standards. Moving to more advanced treatment could cost as much as $100 million for all the plants involved, said Darold Wooley of Lincoln, president of the Maine Wastewater Control Association.
“This is the quandary that everyone’s in: We’re trying to find a way to protect marine species that are involved here without making the financial burden on municipalities up and down the coast too outrageous,” Wooley said.
There are 56 municipal wastewater treatment facilities on Maine’s coast, along with another 27 to 29 that are not publicly owned, Wooley said.
Waters not attaining the current state standards include the estuaries of the Saco, Mousam, Fore, Royal and Medomak Rivers, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s 2002 water quality monitoring report, posted on the agency’s Web site.
The DEP has twice recommended that dissolved oxygen standards be relaxed, Bennett said, and now the sewage treatment plants are asking the Legislature to relax them again.
“This fits in with other efforts that we’re seeing to move backwards in state water quality standards, and that’s just not acceptable,” said Naomi Schalit, executive director of Maine Rivers.
The sponsor of the bill is Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, co-chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, who plans to attend today’s work session, said no one informed the lobster industry of the proposed changes. But he said the amount of oxygen in the water is critical for lobsters and other marine life at the bottom of an estuary.
Cousens said that a key problem in southern New England, where lobsters are in trouble, is that the oxygen levels in the ocean along the coastal plain have been cut in half – a situation no lobsterman wants to see happen here.
“All of a sudden, they’ve had all kinds of disease outbreaks,” he said. “Their stock has collapsed. So obviously, we don’t want to see a relaxation of any water quality standards.”>/p>
Wooley said the changes are necessary because there are some places along the Maine coast – even in places with no sewage treatment plants – where the waters can’t meet the state’s dissolved oxygen standards because of natural conditions.
The Kennebunk plant, he said, “would have to discharge drinking water” to meet either the current or proposed standards. “Some of these conditions may just be a natural part of our marine environment.”>/p>
Bennett called that argument “a complete red herring” because the vast majority of Maine waters meet the standards. In situations where natural conditions cause problems, he said, state law allows the Maine DEP to look the other way.
“What they’re trying to do is get the standards relaxed for 94 percent of Maine’s waters where the vast majority of existing plants meet the standards just fine,” Bennett said. “This is being done for a few plants that can’t attain.”>/p>
Calls to the DEP’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality were not returned Monday.
Wooley said environmentalists are embracing an idealistic “no impact” position for lobster without considering how much it would cost to bring the plants into compliance. He said there “seems to be some willingness on the part of the (DEP) to come to some middle ground.”>/p>
Wooley said one issue centers on whether water quality problems would affect lobsters’s growth rate. He said it should not affect their survival, pointing to the record lobster landings that Maine has enjoyed in recent years.
“If there was a significant environmental problem there, wouldn’t you see a problem with the number of lobsters being caught?” he said. “So maybe they’re overstating it.”>/p>
“I would love to see him say that to a lobsterman,” Bennett said. “How many fisheries do we have in Maine that are successful right now?”>/p>