The state Board of Environmental Protection on February 11 will hear public comment on four permit applications related to Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed land-based salmon farm in Belfast. The hearing, at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center, will address applications Nordic has filed with Maine Department of Environmental Protection for a wastewater discharge system permit, Natural Resources Protection Act and Site Location of Development Act permits, and an air emissions license.

According to BEP, the daytime session will be devoted to testimony from Nordic and official intervenors. The general public will be allowed to testify during an evening session starting at 6 p.m. (snow date Wednesday, February 12, at 6 p.m.). BEP has included a provision to continue the hearing in the following days if necessary.

Topics to be considered include Nordic’s financial capacity; water usage; potential impacts to streams and associated freshwater wetlands; stormwater management and erosion and sedimentation control; potential impacts to existing uses from blasting and odor; potential impacts to coastal wetlands; characteristics of the wastewater effluent; dispersion modeling of the waste discharge to Belfast Bay; potential impacts of the waste discharge on water quality, fisheries, other marine resources and other uses; and potential impacts to air quality from stationary sources.

The permits are necessary for the land-based Atlantic salmon farm Nordic has proposed to build in Belfast near the Northport town line. The site is 54 acres accessed from Route 1 at the current Belfast Water District headquarters.

The facility would be built in two phases, at a total projected cost of $500 million, and would produce roughly 33,000 metric tons per year of Atlantic salmon, an amount equivalent to 7 percent of the U.S. salmon market. Nordic anticipates selling to markets in the Northeast, which it says would reduce the associated carbon emissions over salmon farmed overseas and imported to the U.S.

At full scale, the aquaculture complex would include a smolt building, six “grow out modules” (watercourses where salmon grow to adulthood), a fish processing facility, water treatment plant, gatehouse and visitor center. It would use freshwater from three sources, including wells on the property, public water from Belfast Water District and surface water from the lower reservoir on Little River.

Additionally, a pipeline with two intake pipes and one discharge pipe would run between the salmon farm and nearby Belfast Bay, drawing salt water into the facility from a point roughly a mile offshore and discharging treated wastewater through a shorter pipe ending about one-third of a mile from shore. When completed, the facility would discharge 7.7 million gallons per day of treated wastewater, which would include elevated levels of some nutrients and reduced amounts of others.

The significance of this large volume of altered water being pumped into the bay along with the location and construction of the pipeline itself has captured the public’s imagination in a way that has been an ongoing obstacle for Nordic in the permitting process. The company has proposed a treatment system that removes more nutrients from wastewater than is typical of other land-based aquaculture facilities, but local environmentalists and property owners believe the nutrients that aren’t filtered out will linger in the relatively shallow waters off Bayside Village in Northport and potentially cause algae blooms or other damage to the ecosystem of the bay.

Maine Department of Marine Resources doesn’t share those concerns. The department recently issued an opinion on the project, saying “as proposed [it] should not result in significant adverse impacts to marine resources, recreation, navigation, or riparian access.” The department said the pipeline itself would be an obstacle for lobster, crab and scallop fishermen, who would lose 3.4 acres of fishing ground to the structure, but the construction period, which would fall during migration periods when lobsters move to colder waters, will not harm the fishery.

DMR, however, did ask for “suitable sediment testing along the proposed pipes for potential contaminants.”

While some sediment testing has been done, opponents say the tests were not along the current pipeline route and may not accurately reflect the amount of mercury in the area. Additionally, they argue that the construction technique, which involves dredging 36,000 cubic yards of intertidal and subtidal material, would stir up settled contamination. The Penobscot River Mercury Study, an ongoing project started in 2006 to track mercury dumped in Orrington by HoltraChem in the 1960s and ’70s, concluded that elevated levels of mercury “are still evident even in the most southerly cores taken from Penobscot Bay near Islesboro Island.”

This could present a problem for Nordic in a region where activists in 2015 blocked a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging project that would have expanded the commercial shipping channel in Searsport over concerns about the environmental impact.

As then, opponents of the Nordic Aquafarms proposal are planning to wear red T-shirts to the February 11 hearing, according to one opponent.
In addition to the four environmental permits that will be discussed at the BEP hearing, Nordic has an application before the Belfast Planning Board.
The proposed salmon farm is also at the center of two ongoing lawsuits over rights to a strip of intertidal land that the pipeline is slated to cross.
In a recent letter to The Free Press, Nordic CEO Erik Heim said, “From a permitting perspective this process will come to an end in 2020.” Asked about the statement, Heim’s wife and Nordic Commercial Director Marianne Naess said: “It is true that the permitting will come to an end shortly. Some permits may be appealed, but that doesn’t mean that NAF has not been granted permits. Thus, I think this is an accurate prediction.”

A copy of Nordic’s applications and the pre-filed testimony of Nordic and intervenors can be viewed on the Department of Environmental Protection’s webpage (maine.gov/dep) under the heading “Major Projects before DEP.”

Written comments on Nordic’s applications may be submitted to Board and Department staff electronically at NordicAquaFarms.DEP@maine.gov or mailed to Board of Environmental Protection, c/o Ruth Ann Burke, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0017, until the close of the hearing.
Questions about the hearing may be directed to Cynthia Bertocci, Board Executive Analyst, at 287-2452 or Assistant Attorney General Peggy Bensinger at 626-8578.