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Aquaculture Operations - Laws, Regulations, Policies, and Guidance

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Aquaculture Operations

Information about environmental laws and regulations that affect aquaculture operations.

NPDES Permits: Aquaculture Projects

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program (CWA Section 402) controls direct discharges into navigable waters. Direct discharges or "point source" discharges are from sources such as pipes and sewers. NPDES permits, issued by either EPA or an authorized state/tribe contain industry-specific, technology-based and/or water-quality-based limits, and establish pollutant monitoring and reporting requirements. (EPA has authorized many states to administer the NPDES program.)  A facility that intends to discharge into the Nation's waters must obtain a permit before initiating a discharge.  A permit applicant must provide quantitative analytical data identifying the types of pollutants present in the facility's effluent. The permit will then set forth the conditions and effluent limitations under which a facility may make a discharge.

An NPDES permit may also include discharge limits based on federal or state/tribe water quality criteria or standards that were designed to protect designated uses of surface waters, such as supporting aquatic life or recreation. These standards, unlike the technological standards, generally do not take into account technological feasibility or costs. Water quality criteria and standards vary from state to state (tribe to tribe) and site to site, depending on the use classification of the receiving body of water. Most states/tribes follow EPA guidelines that propose aquatic life and human health criteria for many of the 126 priority pollutants.

Related environmental requirements
Clean Water Act Section 1342 Exit EPA
40 CFR Part 122.24

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Aquaculture Waste Disposal Wells

According to the existing underground injection control (UIC) regulations in 40 CFR 146.5(e)(12) [scroll to (e)(12)], "wells associated with ... aquaculture..." are classified as Class V injection wells. On July 29, 1998 (63 FR 40586), EPA proposed revisions to the Class V UIC regulations that would add requirements for the following three types of  wells that, based on available information, were believed to pose a high risk to underground sources of drinking water (USDWs) when located in groundwater-based source water protection areas: motor vehicle waste disposal wells, industrial wells, and large-capacity cesspools. All other types of Class V wells, including aquaculture wastewater disposal wells, are to be studied further to determine whether they warrant additional UIC regulation.

While some aquaculture facilities use holding structures in natural, open water bodies and rely on natural water circulation for water replenishment, many facilities use closed systems (e.g., tanks or ponds) and accumulate wastewater and sludge that must be removed. At dozens of such facilities in Hawaii and several other states, this wastewater and sludge is disposed via underground injection. All injected aquaculture wastewater includes fecal and other excretory wastes and uneaten aquaculture food. The primary chemical and physical constituents of these wastewaters are therefore nitrogen- and phosphorus-based nutrients and suspended and dissolved solids.

Injected aquaculture wastewater may also contain bacteria that are pathogenic to humans, and chemical additives used in aquaculture. Such additives may include: antibiotics to control diseases; pesticides to control parasites, algae, and other pests; hormones to induce spawning; anesthetics to immobilize fish during transport and handling; and pigments, vitamins, and minerals to promote rapid growth and desired qualities in the cultivated organisms. The incidence and concentrations of human pathogenic bacteria and chemical additives in injectate is not known. Information on aquaculture wastewater quality industry-wide is very limited, and wastewater properties are believed to vary greatly among different aquaculture operations.  Available sampling data for aquaculture injectate indicate that nitrate and turbidity levels frequently exceed primary MCLs or HALs. The secondary MCL for chloride is also exceeded in the wastewater from seawater-based operations in Hawaii (these wastes are injected into saline aquifers).

The injection zone for aquaculture wastewater must be of relatively high porosity, as aquaculture wastewaters typically have significant suspended solids content. As noted above, seawater-based aquaculture operations in Hawaii inject wastewater into brackish or saline aquifers that flow seaward. Little information is available regarding other aquifers receiving aquaculture injectate.

No contamination incidents related to aquaculture wastewater disposal have been reported. However, available information about some aquaculture injection wells suggest that USDW contamination could occur. In Idaho, an aquaculture well is known to inject wastewater directly into an aquifer, but the quality of the aquifer, its status as a USDW, and the resulting impacts are unknown. The one subsurface disposal system (actually a leaching field) known to be in use by an aquaculture operation in Maryland is situated above a Type 1 (high quality) aquifer.

Aquaculture wells generally are not vulnerable to spills or illicit discharges. Most are located within private facilities and are not accessible to the public for unsupervised waste disposal. However, the potential exists for operators to dispose of harmful liquid wastes (e.g., waste aquaculture chemicals, or spent tank water with higher concentrations of chemicals used for temporary treatment of cultivated organisms) via aquaculture injection wells.  No such cases have been reported.

According to the state and EPA Regional survey, a total of 55 documented Class V aquaculture waste disposal wells exist in the  U.S. The great majority occur in Hawaii (51 wells, or 93 percent). The remaining wells are in Wyoming (2 wells), Idaho (1 well), and Maryland (1 well). In addition to these documented wells, as many as 50 additional wells are estimated to exist in California, and one well described in a technical publication in New York fits the definition of a Class V well (but is not reported as such by New York State). Thus, the true number of aquaculture waste disposal wells in the U.S. is likely to approach 100. Given that the value of U.S. aquaculture production has grown by 5 to 10 percent per year over the past decade, and that the aquaculture industry remains the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture, it is likely that the number of Class V aquaculture waste disposal wells will increase.

Programs to manage Class V aquaculture waste disposal wells vary between the four states with documented wells:

Inconsistent or unclear permit requirements exist in the other two states thought to have aquaculture injection wells. In California, regional authorities issue permits for all Class V wells, but this is not done consistently across the state. Thus, the aquaculture facilities thought to operate injection wells are not required to obtain permits for these wells. In New York, several state regulations could apply to the construction and operation of aquaculture injection wells, but it is not clear whether the facility thought to operate injection wells is subject to any permit requirement.

More information from EPA
Disposing of Fluids Underground
The Class V Underground Injection Control Study:  Agricultural Drainage Wells (PDF) (70 pp, 515K)
The Class V Underground Injection Control Study:  Aquaculture Waste Disposal Wells (PDF) (48 pp, 126K)
Underground Injection Control

Telephone assistance from EPA
Safe Drinking Water Hotline 800-426-479

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Effluent Guidelines

Effluent guidelines are national standards for wastewater discharges to surface waters and publicly owned treatment works (municipal sewage treatment plants).  EPA issues effluent guidelines for categories of existing sources and sources under Title III of the Clean Water Act. The standards are technology-based (i.e., they are based on the performance of treatment and control technologies); they are not based on risk or impacts upon receiving waters.

On June 30, 2004 EPA finalized a rule establishing regulations for concentrated aquatic animal production (CAAP), or farm-raised fish facilities. The regulation will apply to approximately 245 facilities that generate wastewater from their operations and discharge that wastewater directly into waters of the United States. This rule will help reduce discharges of conventional pollutants, primarily total suspended solids. It will also help reduce non-conventional pollutants such as nutrients. In January 1992, EPA agreed to a settlement with the Natural Resources Defense Council and others in a consent decree that established a schedule by which EPA would consider regulations for 19 industrial categories. EPA selected the CAAP industry for one of those rules. Issuance of this rule completes all regulations addressed under the settlement agreement.

More information from EPA
Press Release
Effluent Guidelines - Aquatic Animal Production Industry
Effluent Guidelines - General Information

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Federal Law on Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1998 and 1999 was enacted on November 13, 1998. Title VI of the law is the "Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998." In short, the law  

More information from the Ag Center
Harmful Algal Blooms

More information from EPA 
Harmful Algal Blooms
Alternative Strategies for Hypoxia Management

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Food and Drug Administration

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State Aquaculture Requirements Exit EPA

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Aquatic Life Water Quality Criteria

To better protect aquatic organisms, EPA has revised its aquatic life criteria for several chemicals to reflect the latest scientific knowledge about their effects. These revised criteria provide guidance in adopting water quality standards and provide a scientific basis to develop controls of discharges or releases of pollutants.

More information from EPA
National Recommended Water Quality Criteria
Aquatic life water quality criteria information
Dissolved Oxygen
Technical Overview of Ecological Risk Assessment: Aquatic Life Benchmark Table - an online summary of aquatic life benchmarks taken from pesticide-specific ecological risk assessments.
Tools for Reducing Nitrogen, Phosphorus Pollution - online tools to help fight "nutrient pollution" (high loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus) into the nation's waters introduced by EPA's Office of Water.

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