A public hearing on a bill that would exempt certain land-based aquaculture facilities from the state’s building code shed light on the financial stakes for the company behind it, Whole Oceans. The bill also received dozens of comments from opponents from Waldo County worried the bill would allow Nordic Aquafarms to cut corners at its proposed Belfast salmon farm.

LD 1473 would add land-based aquaculture buildings —specifically, the buildings in which fish are raised — to a short list of structures that are currently exempt from the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is reviewing the bill and held the public hearing on May 12.

MUBEC, as it’s known, is a compilation of several national and international building codes that govern construction materials and methods, fire safety, ventilation and indoor air quality standards related to heating and refrigeration, and energy efficiency standards.

Maine Department of Economic and Community Development drafted LD 1473 at the request of Whole Oceans, the company planning a land-based Atlantic salmon farm in Bucksport. The exemption from MUBEC would allow the company to forgo installing a sprinker system in the buildings where fish are raised.

Supporters of the bill, limited on May 12 to Whole Oceans, DECD and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Rosen, said the aquaculture buildings should receive the same exemption currently granted to buildings that house livestock and harvested crops.

Rosen read a statement including the industry claim that land-based aquaculture will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by bringing fish closer to markets and suggested that loosening regulations was necessary to take advantage of the growing industry. “Other states are competing for the land-based aquaculture industry to locate in their states,” she said. “Maine is uniquely positioned to gain an edge in this industry if we can treat this industry fairly and on par with other agricultural endeavors.”

Michael Thompson, senior project manager with Whole Oceans, put a finer point on it, saying the land-based aquaculture industry has “always considered farm-raised salmon to be livestock, and a harvested crop, [but] it’s not clear in Maine law that land-based aquaculture facilities are exempt from MUBEC. …We’re just trying to get clarity on that, because we’re clearly livestock and are clearly a harvesting crop elsewhere in Maine law.”

During questioning from the committee, Thompson said the sprinkler system would cost “$9 million or more. But the other part that really gets us is handling systems or it could be $24 million to make it meet the code as if it were an office building or a school.”

Asked if there were other aspects of MUBEC that should not apply, Thompson said, “Those are the major ones. There are a lot of little ones that all add up.”

LD 1473 was written in consultation with the Maine State Fire Marshal. A represenative of the Fire Marshal’s Office told The Free Press that the buildings would still have to comply with the state’s Life Safety Code.

If the bill passes, Thompson said Whole Oceans would work with the Fire Marshal’s Office and the town of Bucksport to identify codes that apply to its facility.

Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, asked Thompson if Whole Oceans has operations in other states.

“We have a facility right now in British Columbia,” Thompson said, referring to Kuterra, owned by Emergent Holdings, Whole Oceans’ parent company. Kuterra opened in 2013. “It’s open, operating, and we’re looking at other sites,” Thompson said.

Jim Merkel of Belfast, one of more than 40 people who submitted testimony against the bill, said the comparison of land-based aquaculture facilities to other exempt buildings was not appropriate. “They’re highly complex industrial operations, not in any way similar to a potato barn or cow shed,” he said. “Just to provide an example, the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast would have complex buildings and technical infrastructure covering 14 football fields, with large storage tanks for fuels, chemicals and fish, pumps, filters, processing operations, sludge ponds, fish gutting operations and offices. The scale is immense …”

Offices would not be exempt under LD 1473, which applies only to buildings where fish are raised.

Whether LD 1473 would free aquaculture businesses from unnecessary expenses or allow questionable corner-cutting in an industry that is new to Maine and strongly favored by the Mills administration is unclear.

The Free Press spoke with three code enforcement officers to understand the impact of a MUBEC exemption, but the answers seemed to hinge on specifics of the project. Exempting a building in which people would work raised some eyebrows, though the CEOs pointed to the Life Safety Code requirements as a measure of protection. The patchwork of codes might leave a gap around building materials, construction methods and energy efficiency. Manufacturing, similar in complexity to land-based aquaculture, is not currently exempt from MUBEC.

Many of the comments submitted to the committee criticized land-based aquaculture as a new polluting industry, rather than the environmentally progressive one it advertises.

“The combined carbon embodied in construction and released in daily operation of these industrial scale businesses will eclipse any gains achieved by the governor’s conservation and efficiency initiatives,” Francis Weld of Northwest Harbor wrote. “Rather than give these aquaculture business developers a free ride, the design and execution of their facilities should be held to the utmost scrutiny and to the highest standard.”

Commenting on The Free Press website earlier this month, Jacki Cassida, community liaison for Nordic Aquafarms, said the company was not involved in LD 1473 and won’t be affected by the outcome of the bill.

“We will comply with the current building codes and standards regardless of whether this LD is passed or not,” she wrote, “… Nordic Aquafarms has consistently progressed forward on a path of compliance on the city, state, and federal levels.”