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Residents Urge State to Fix Water Pollution From New Durham Hatchery

Annie Ropeik

New Durham residents are frustrated by what they call slow progress in fixing pollution at the state’s largest fish hatchery.

Dozens attended a public meeting in the Lakes Region town Thursday night to hear local, state and federal officials discuss plans to address the problem.

The Powder Mill hatchery grows trout and salmon to stock state fishing areas, and it discharges fish waste into the Merrymeeting River, which flows into Lake Winnipesaukee.

The state says it’s in compliance with its Environmental Protection Agency industrial discharge permit – but that permit is years out of date and is due to be replaced.

The nitrogen and phosphorus discharges from fish food and waste have allegedly caused some of the worst algae and cyanobacteria blooms in the state, in ponds along the river downstream of the hatchery.

Fish & Game says this is a problem, to some degree, at all six of their state hatcheries. 

But in New Durham, advocates say the pollution is akin to sewer discharge from tens of thousands of people. And neighbors say it’s hurt their property values, well water, pets and quality of life.

Art Hoover lives on one of the ponds most affected by cyanobacteria. He says he and his family haven’t boated or swam on the water in three years.

"We want to know, when's this going to get cleaned up, when is it going to stop, when can I use it again?" Hoover asked officials at the meeting in New Durham.

The state says it plans to install treatment systems under its next federal permit that will reduce the pollution, but that will take research, funding and time – likely at least three years – to make happen.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Residents listen as public officials discuss the hatchery pollution issue in a New Durham municipal building Thursday night.

Lakes Region residents like Nancy Bryant want to know the short-term plan.

“This is our waterway, and it’s been used for all these decades,” she says. “There’s an obligation now that this needs to be cleaned up, and people need to be compensated.”

For now, officials say they’ll try to procure a truck to take solid fish waste off-site, dumping it in a town sand pit or spreading it on farmers’ fields, instead of flushing it into the river.

Lawmakers will work on long-term funding in the next legislative session.

Officials hope to determine the ideal nutrient load for the river by next February, as part of ongoing work on a comprehensive watershed management plan for the Merrymeeting River.

They say that nutrient number would let them draft a design for a hatchery wastewater treatment facility, subject to change based on the requirements of the pending federal permit – which, again, could take months or longer to complete.

The governor’s office says it hopes to include that treatment proposal in its next budget request to the legislature. And Fish & Game says they have money in their current budget for the initial design work.

State Rep. Mike Harrington, a Republican from Strafford, says he'll introduce a bill next session that would impose extra fees on trout fishermen to pay for the project.

Meanwhile, residents are working with the Conservation Law Foundation to sue the state over the problem. That lawsuit is due out in the coming days.

CLF attorney Tom Irwin and others argue the federal Clean Water Act requires the state to reduce current pollution from the hatchery up to the limits of current technology, and to set its new permit at the same level.

He says a similar mandate is being carried out at municipal wastewater treatment plants around Great Bay on the Seacoast

The EPA’s industrial permitting chief for New England said at Thursday’s meeting that he disagrees with that interpretation of the law.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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