Regional implications of plastic waste in Penobscot Bay

By Stephen Miller | Jan 29, 2021

An Islesboro Islands Trust letter of Jan. 3 to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection listed several concerns associated with Sprague Operating Resources’ December 2020 plastic waste discharge into Penobscot Bay, including references to the ubiquitous, bay-wide, not simply localized, impacts associated with release of microplastics into the dynamic marine environment. The presence of some of the spilled microplastics on an Islesboro beach illustrates and highlights these regional implications.

However, Sprague Operating Resources spokesperson Shana Hoch appears to minimize the extent of dispersal, and therefore of concern, in a Jan. 14 Republican Journal report ("Select Board, land trust call for 'zero tolerance' of plastic waste"). According to that account, Hoch claimed that Sprague Operating Resources “went to Seal Cove on Islesboro when a resident called to complain about plastic that had washed up there. The material did not appear to be part of the December spill, she said, but the company cleaned it up anyway.”

Due to the nature of marine waters generally and Penobscot Bay specifically, microplastics released into these waters will disperse and become virtually impossible to remove entirely. Therefore, for the factual record, we must reemphasize and correct any misunderstanding that may arise from the characterization of events surrounding microplastics found on Islesboro.

On the unseasonably warm Sunday, Dec 13, 2020, Islesboro residents Jon Kerr and Madelaine Alexander found a significant number of small pieces of plastic mixed with seaweed along a 35- to 40-foot stretch of their beach at Sprague’s Cove, Islesboro. Because Jon and Laine knew about the plastics spill at Mack Point, they wondered whether they saw some portion of the spill. Kerr took some pictures of the plastic found here and collected a few samples.

Kerr reported this possibility to Maine DEP Monday, Dec. 14, and was told to contact Josh Littlefield at Sprague Operating Resources. Kerr called Littlefield “and left a message that the plastic is making an appearance on our shore.”

Sprague sent two employees to Islesboro on a frigid Wednesday, Dec. 16. A bitter and gusty northwest wind Tuesday, Dec. 15, and again Wednesday, caused the seaweed on the Sprague’s Cove beach to roll into a frozen bundle. The Sprague’s Cove beach with the microplastics found by Kerr and Alexander faces directly northwest. The well-intentioned Sprague investigators arrived close to high tide. That, and temperatures well below freezing, inhibited and curtailed a thorough look for plastic at that time. Therefore, they found no plastic then. The Sprague employees left with the modest number of samples that Kerr had collected on the 13th.

However, on subsequent walks along that Sprague Cove shore, Alexander and Kerr found and collected more microplastic pieces entangled in the later unfrozen seaweed.

Pictures of microplastics amongst seaweed at Sprague’s Cove taken by Kerr Dec. 13, samples found there more recently, and microplastic samples found on the western shore of Sears Island Friday, Jan. 15, irrefutably establish that both came from the Sprague spill.

Microplastics discharged into Penobscot Bay are clearly a regional issue of grave concern, as elementary ocean physics and the facts in this specific instance attest, including the fact that some portion of the spilled microplastics was carried by wind, currents and marine influence to Islesboro.

Stephen Miller is executive director of Islesboro Islands Trust, a nonprofit land trust founded in 1985.

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