Boston — A desalination plant for a new Rhode Island yacht club is seriously jeopardizing an adjacent lobster nursery habitat, according to an investigation conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The problem is that the submerged outfall was installed in water much too shallow to prevent toxic buildups of brine, in direct violation of its state permit requirements.
The Sakonnet Point Club in Little Compton recently completed a near-shore brackish well water desalination plant to service their marina and yachting facility. The brine effluent from desalination contains high levels of arsenic, copper, and nickel from the rock strata of the wells in addition to concentrated sea salts. In order to protect against over-concentration of the toxic brine, the state permit requires placement of the outflow (called a diffuser) in at least 23 feet of water. After being notified by a public employee, PEER hired a scuba diver who found the diffuser submerged in only eight feet of seawater at near high tide.
The discharge point is located at what is considered a rare and important lobster nursery and grow-out habitat for a struggling industry already staggered by a lobster population crash and operating under severe harvest restrictions. The permit allows discharge of up to 3,000 gallons per day, which contains enough copper, for example, to exceed three times the lethal dose for an adult lobster and six times the lethal level for lobster larvae (over a 96 hour exposure).
“The coastal shallows of Narragansett Bay are the last place we can afford to see this type of pollution,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and lawyer who formerly worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
PEER is demanding that the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) immediately close the plant, revoke its permit and not re-issue it until the outfall is re-installed properly. DEM had verbally informed Dr. Bennett that it had told the Club not to operate the desalination unit, but this directive was never put in writing. In addition, conflicting information from DEM and the Rhode Island Department of Health, together with eyewitness observations, indicates the system may have actually been piloted throughout the month of August, precisely at the time of wind and current delivery of larval lobsters to the area.
The DEM permit specifies that the “submerged outfall with a multi-port diffuser, consisting of eight (8) ¾ inch diffuser ports, …terminates in 23 feet of water…” [Emphasis added]. The diffuser pipe is supposed to promote rapid dilution of the toxic effluent with receiving waters. The deeper the water, the quicker is the mixing.
“This is a crystal clear violation of the permit for which we have provided DEM photographic evidence and a sworn affidavit,” Bennett added. “So, we are mystified as to what DEM needs to motivate it to act.”
If DEM continues to stall, PEER is preparing a formal petition that will trigger intervention by EPA, including possible criminal prosecution if it is found that the violation is deliberate.