BOSTON (AP) – A federal judge had no right to impose broad restrictions that have shut down some downeast Maine salmon farms accused of breaking federal pollution laws, an attorney for the farms told a U.S. appeals court panel on Tuesday.

Richard Schwartz, an attorney for Atlantic Salmon of Maine and Stolt Sea Farms, argued that the state, not the court, has ultimate authority over the farms.

He said Maine pollution discharge permits granted Monday cover the same ground as the judge’s order.

But an attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group argued that federal judge Gene Carter was justified in ordering the cleanup and added that he was simply dealing with the state’s historical failure to enforce pollution laws.

“The question is whether the court can make (the farms) fix the environmental mess they’ve made for the past 15 years,” attorney David Nicholas said after the hearing. “It has the power to remedy the wrong.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the salmon farms’ request to delay the restrictions while the appeal is heard, meaning the provisions in Carter’s order remain in effect.

A suit by U.S. PIRG accused the two Norwegian-owned companies of violating the Clean Water Act by failing to obtain permits to discharge pollution into the ocean. It said pollutants, including excess feed, feces and medications, were damaging the environment.

In March, Carter levied $50,000 fines against the two companies, which have about 12 farms between them. He also admonished the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for “inexcusable delay” in addressing the issue.

Carter banned the companies from stocking fish in ocean pens and ordered them to shut down their farms for up to 36 months. He also barred the farms from stocking non-north Atlantic strains of salmon to prevent farm escapees from interbreeding with endangered wild Atlantic salmon, which could cause their extinction.

The companies objected to the lengthy closures in Carter’s decision, and have also questioned how harmful interbreeding is to endangered salmon, though Schwartz said Tuesday that the companies were planning to gradually phase out non-north Atlantic salmon.

He also said about 200,000 of 900,000 salmon placed in freshwater tanks following the ruling have died.

Atlantic salmon farming has provided badly needed jobs in a chronically depressed employment market. A University of Maine study in 2000 said salmon aquaculture had generated more than $110 million in pretax personal income for the downeast Maine economy.

AP-ES-07-29-03 1752EDT

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