No let up in fight against salmon farm

As it awaits approvals and opponents amp up efforts, a Norwegian company still plans to break ground in August in Belfast.
rendering of nordic salmon farm
Nordic Aquafarms is planning to build a land-based salmon farm on about 40 acres in Belfast, off Route 1 near the Northport town line. Image courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms.

BELFAST — As they sat in a circle on Sunday, two dozen activists opposed to a land-based salmon farm in the city shared their concerns with one another.

Can Belfast — which sits at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River estuary on Belfast and Penobscot bays — handle a facility that would produce 66 million pounds of salmon a year? Would water discharged from the facility harm Penobscot Bay? Would citizens have a say in state and federal permitting?

One man made a reference to “Gulliver’s Travels,” describing the group as Lilliputians – only 6 inches tall – to Gulliver’s full size, each using a tiny rope to try to restrain the larger man.

“People are a little tired,” said Ellie Daniels, leader of Local Citizens for SMART Growth: Salmon Farm. “We’re 11 months in now. We’ve continued with a lot of letter writing, a big presence at all the meetings, and today is a legislative training.”

A year ago, Norwegian company Nordic Aquafarms announced that it intended to build what could become the world’s largest – or perhaps second-largest – land-based salmon farm in Belfast, population 6,752. The company has an option to purchase and lease 40 acres of land on U.S. Route 1 near the Northport town line.

The Belfast project is one of two land-based salmon production facilities under consideration by state officials. The other, just 18 miles away in Bucksport, would be a smaller operation built on the former site of the Verso paper mill on the Penobscot River. That $250 million project by Whole Oceans LLC received its DEP permit to discharge water into the river in November.

In Belfast, Nordic is expected to spend $150 million to install the first tanks, which the company says would be the largest in the world. When fully built-out, the facility to grow and process fish is expected to cost upwards of $500 million and employ about 100.

Despite citizen pushback, Nordic officials say the project is on track for an August groundbreaking. Spokeswoman Marianne Naess said the approvals process has been thorough, and the company has done its best to answer questions from regulators and the public.

I can tell you it’s a lot more extensive than what we have experienced in Europe.”

— Marianne Naess, spokeswoman for Nordic Aquafarm

“I can tell you it’s a lot more extensive than what we have experienced in Europe,” Naess said last week during an interview in the company’s Portland office. “In Europe, it’s ‘these are the laws and regulations, you need to obey them’ and here you have to prove that you do it when you apply.”

Naess said she doesn’t think opposition from Belfast residents – about 300 are part of an active listserv – has slowed down the project.

“As of today, no, we still have permits to submit and there’s a process they have to go through also,” she said. “Yes, it’s a pretty extensive process, and it requires a lot of resources from us.”

As to concerns about water discharged back into the bay, Naess said Nordic’s filters and other technology will be far better than industry standard, removing 99 percent of particles and 85 percent of the nitrogen. It’s important to control the amount of nitrogen in the water because when there’s too much it can lead to algae and other unwanted aquatic plants, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s unprecedented in the industry,” she said. “Our discharge has lower (particles) than the background levels in the bay.”

In addition to questions about the size of the proposed facility, Belfast residents also have questioned whether the city has fast-tracked local approvals to help Nordic. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request filed by Pine Tree Watch last year show the city’s eagerness to help the company, and in interviews, city officials said they welcome the industry and the tax revenue it would bring.

Following an April City Council vote to approve changes to city zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan, City Manager Joe Slocum wrote an email to Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim that describes the city’s effort to move things along quickly.

Eric Heim, CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, has been working with Belfast officials for months on his company’s proposed indoor salmon farm. Photo by Tristan Spinski.

“The city, in less than four weeks, received 143 letters and numerous personal pleas calling for the rezoning process to slow down, because there is confusion, ignorance and misinformation as well as unanswered questions,” Slocum wrote to Heim. “In the face of this outpouring of concern, the council nevertheless again moved forward, at your request, and unanimously voted 5 to 0 to approve the needed zoning change.”

He added: “I cannot think of a community anywhere that has done so much, in so short a time, to successfully advance a project that is touted as being the largest of its kind in the world.”

In addition, the Belfast Water District, which plans to sell land to Nordic for the project, asked for and received from the state Public Utilities Commission a waiver of the typical eight-month public notice period for land sales. Nordic also has agreements in place to purchase land from Mathews Bros., a nearby window manufacturer, and a private abutter, Sam Cassida.

That prompted Daniels and her partner Donna Broderick, who live near the proposed salmon farm site, to sue the city, alleging city officials took shortcuts to give the company zoning changes. City officials deny those charges, saying citizens have had plenty of opportunity to speak up at public meetings. The suit is still making its way through the court system, but Daniels hopes for a decision in May or June.

Late last year, an attorney for two other groups — UpStream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union — filed a motion to dismiss Nordic’s application to run intake and discharge pipes into Penobscot Bay, calling it flawed. The motion is part of an application that is still under review by the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

The activists have also enlisted the help of Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast,  to file bills in Augusta sparked by Nordic’s proposal.

Land preservation deal

Earlier this month, Nordic offered to help pay for the preservation and restoration of about 80 acres near the proposed salmon farm in response to a request from resident Joanne Moesswilde to protect the land from development. The land includes a reservoir with a dam that is in disrepair and wetlands that are in need of restoration.

She told City Council members she hoped it would be a way to bridge the gap between salmon farm supporters and opponents.

“The project can be a way to find common ground among people who might not be agreeing with each other these days,” she said. “We can learn the ways we are more the same than how we are different.”

Moesswilde was one of three salmon farm opponents to run for Belfast City Council in November. All three were defeated.

The project can be a way to find common ground among people who might not be agreeing with each other these days. We can learn the ways we are more the same than how we are different.”

— Belfast resident Joanne Moesswilde

Slocum said the land preservation deal will likely help Nordic meet requirements set by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Nordic likely would disturb some wetlands on the land it plans to develop, and the state often requires other wetlands be remediated in such cases, he said.

Naess said regardless of whether the DEP requires the company to contribute to wetland preservation, it plans to go ahead with providing money for the purchase and restoration of the Upper Reservoir and the land surrounding it, which is west of the proposed development site. The preliminary plan calls for the Belfast Water District to sell the land to the city at a reduced cost, with Nordic providing the funds. The deed would prohibit development of the 80 acres.

This would permanently protect about 2.8 miles of a popular hiking trail and ultimately, the plan is for the city to transfer the land to a land trust.

“It goes well with working with the community, finding some common ground, preserving some of the forest, which is important for the wildlife habitat,” Naess said. “It’s a way of showing we actually care about the community, which we do. This is proof we are doing that and we are willing to (talk) with people in the community.”

Belfast City Councilman Mike Hurley called the land preservation agreement “wonderful news,” noting that the Little River Community Trail  is a major asset in the area. He also said it’s important to remember that the deal is contingent upon the entire project moving forward.

“It’s not going to happen if they don’t get their permits,” he said during a mid-January council meeting. “It’s another reason I’m in favor of them getting their permits.”

Hurley said city officials support the proposal because of the tax revenue it would bring to the city. In a larger context, he said the state’s 3,500 miles of coastline – with cold and clean water – is an ideal spot for these types of industries.

“Aquaculture is in our future, and we need less emotion and a whole lot more facts,” he said. “The opposition speaks with a megaphone, and the people for it whisper.”

In November, the DEP deemed Nordic’s application to discharge 7.7 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into Belfast Bay as complete for consideration. DEP spokesman David Madore said via email last week that the agency has asked for additional information from Nordic and there is no timeline for a formal decision to be issued.

Nordic also needs permission from the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to put pipes into Penobscot Bay, both to bring in water for the fish tanks and to release some of it back into the bay after it has been used and filtered. Carol DiBello, the state’s submerged lands coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said her department has asked for more information from Nordic and that the company has until April 18 to submit it.

Once that information is received, there will be a 30-day public comment period before any decisions are made, she said.

“Right now, the clock has stopped,” she said.

Lincolnville attorney Kimberly Ervin Tucker, representing UpStream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union, asked state agriculture officials to dismiss Nordic’s application to install the pipes, arguing that the company does not have legal permission to extend them out into the bay.

Proposed legislation

Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, a former teacher who is serving her first term in the Maine House of Representatives, was reticent to talk about the bills she is sponsoring before they are printed.

“We’re building the airplane while we’re flying it,” she said earlier this month at the Statehouse.

New legislators were warned not to speak to reporters about bills. For me to say ‘we think the bill says this, this, this and this’ is extremely dangerous for me as a legislator.”

— Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast

During the Sunday meeting with about 25 project opponents, Dodge explained how to track what’s going on with legislative committees and how to prepare testimony. She said the activists should monitor three committees: Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Environment and Natural Resources; and Marine Resources to stay on top of what’s happening with the legislation.

“New legislators were warned not to speak to reporters about bills,” she said. “For me to say ‘we think the bill says this, this, this and this’ is extremely dangerous for me as a legislator.”

Dodge submitted these bill titles and is awaiting language from the Legislature’s bill-writing office:

An Act Regarding Review of Licensed Land-based Aquaculture Facilities and Reporting by the Holders of Licenses for Land-Based Aquaculture of Marine Organisms

An Act to Improve Survival Rates of Salmon and Other Migratory Fish Transitioning from Freshwater to Saltwater Environments

Resolve, Directing the Governor to Re-nominate Penobscot Bay for Inclusion in the National Estuary Program

An Act to Protect the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay from Mercury Contamination

Ron Huber, executive director of Friends of Penobscot Bay, said the bill that references land-based aquaculture facilities is designed to require state officials to look at the cumulative effect of multiple proposals. The Bucksport project would discharge into the Penobscot River, upstream from Belfast, with the Nordic discharge going into Penobscot Bay.

“You want to have bills like this to require them to look at the greater effects of all of them,” he said. “You almost cannot find the term cumulative impact in laws anymore.”

With regard to the other bills, Huber said it’s important to try to get Penobscot Bay included in the National Estuary Program because as it is now, the approach to science and research has been “scattershot.” He said inclusion in the program would lead to the creation of a committee that would decide “what problems need to be solved to make it a healthier ecosystem.”

You want to have bills like this to require them to look at the greater effects of all of them. You almost cannot find the term cumulative impact in laws anymore.”

— Ron Huber, executive director of Friends of Penobscot Bay

In particular, he cited development pressure along Route 1 and the two proposed land-based salmon farms as reasons to more closely monitor the health of the bay. Huber, who attended Sunday’s meeting, said damage already done to the bay by industry, sewage pipes that discharge into the bay, and concerns that dredging could release mercury buried in the sediment.

Dodge encouraged those gathered Sunday to contact other legislators in the Midcoast region to encourage them to co-sponsor bills after they are printed.

“I’m going to be able to run through the halls in my pumps with the bill jackets to get their signatures,” she said.

New industry

Nordic Aquafarms’ plan to produce 66 million pounds of salmon each year would equate to 7 percent of the current U.S. salmon consumption, Heim said last year.

He said Belfast has the right combination of fresh water; access to the ocean; a large, flat parcel of land; and a vibrant community to help attract the engineers and scientists needed to do something that hasn’t been done in the United States on a commercial scale – raise salmon from egg to harvest.

On a basic level, recirculating aquaculture systems like Nordic would use about two-thirds to three-quarters ocean water and the rest freshwater, Heim said. Nordic Aquafarms would pull water out of Belfast Bay, treat it to prevent bacteria from getting into its tanks, and use it to raise the fish. Most of it would be recirculated within the plant and reused, with some pumped back into the ocean after being treated again, Heim said.

Nordic has two other land-based fish farms in Denmark and a third is set to open this month in Norway, Naess said. The Denmark facilities grow yellowtail kingfish, and the Norway plant will produce salmon, with the first fully grown fish expected to be ready in two years, she said.

As the company looks to expand, it may consider growing and harvesting steelhead trout. Naess and Heim are scouting for additional land in the United States for other land-based aquaculture facilities.

“Our strategy is to place the facilities close to where the consumers are,” she said. “We are looking into other locations as well. Not everyone lives in the Northeast.”

Naess said it makes sense to grow the fish near the customers, rather than fly them in from Europe, both from a business perspective and because the company wants to reduce its carbon footprint. About 90 percent of all seafood is imported to the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Naess said her company believes the demand for seafood is growing 7 percent to 8 percent a year.

Ultimately, the company would like to be considered a local food producer. And because they are growing the fish from egg to harvest, it allows consumers to know exactly where their food is coming from.

“I think the consumers will demand, to an increasing extent, to know where their food or fish comes from and how it is produced,” Naess said. “That’s something we can provide to the market – a fully traceable, locally produced, high-quality product.”


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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