Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed land-based salmon farm in Belfast will meet or exceed water quality standards, according to data the company will send to environmental regulators. Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim says that the facility’s state-of-the-art wastewater treatment technology will put the particulate and chemical discharge levels at the same level as the background levels of the bay or will be diluted to background levels soon after discharge.

“If it wasn’t for the salinity, I would drink that water,” said Heim. “This is a drinking-water-quality grade treatment system.”

The Norwegian-based company intends to submit its discharge permit for its facility to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Oct. 19 and it will be available to the public online at the DEP website and at Belfast City Hall. When completed, the project will be one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world, producing all of its fish indoors using recirculating water technology that will utilize groundwater from wells and salt water from Penobscot Bay. The facility will use a 0.4-micron microfiltration process to filter out fish feces and residual nutrients from fish feed particles. For context, the cross-section of a human hair is 50 microns and the human eye can’t see anything less than 40 microns.

The discharge pipe will be underground, running a kilometer out into the bay under tidal flats. The company calculated its discharge data by setting a maximum level of nutrients it will feed the fish, although it has not yet chosen a feed. The data is based on the company’s projected output of 33,000 metric tons of fish once the project is fully completed. However, the discharge from phase one of the project will be half that amount. Nordic says it will reduce the undissolved particles by 99 percent, which it says will be lower than the background particulate levels of the bay. The output of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), which can lower the dissolved oxygen content in the water, will be reduced by 99 percent. The treatment system will reduce phosphorus, which can cause algae blooms and decrease oxygen in the water, by 99 percent. Heim said the projected discharge level of phosphorus is equivalent to what 20 untreated lawns produce through natural runoff.

The treatment system will reduce nitrogen levels by 85 percent. The company cites a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, which found that 17.7 percent of the total nitrogen in Penobscot Bay comes from development, 11.6 percent comes from agricultural runoff, 4.6 percent derives from “point source” discharges (like sewers and various industries), and more than half comes from atmospheric deposition. Nordic says its discharge will add about 0.75 percent to the point-source share of runoff into the bay.

Nordic also states that the nitrogen, phosphorus and BOD discharge levels will be reduced to the background levels of the bay by dilution. Nordic’s environmental consultant Ransom concluded that the project will have no impact on eel grass, which is some of the most sensitive life in the bay, so the company doesn’t believe the discharge will have an adverse impact on anything else. Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting said that the majority of state environmental permits do not contain limits for nitrogen and phosphorus, so the company is actually exceeding standards.

“That being said, the trend for the moment is to start adding those limits, so we would not be surprised to find a requirement in the actual permit that’s written for this project,” she said. “But if you look up and down the coast I think you’ll find that the majority of the permits that are out there — primarily for municipal treatment plants but also some of the other industry permits — don’t contain a limit for nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Nordic says it will collect discharge data using sensors and manual testing and maintain a log, which will be available for regulators to audit at any time.

“You’re expected to monitor your water quality on a regular basis and it recently changed to weekly,” said Nordic’s chief technology officer, David Noyes. “You take the samples and send it to a lab. You don’t do the lab work yourself. It’s not a ‘trust me’ situation.”

Heim said that no existing facility is making this kind of investment in water treatment technology, but that he believes discharge regulations will become stricter in the future.

“We are raising the bar significantly because we believe that when you look at the need for growth in the aquaculture sector and fish farming globally,” he said, “the only way to do this sustainably is you need to raise your standards in terms of environmental profile.”

Salmon Farm Opponents Weigh In

However, the group Local Citizens for SMART Growth, which opposes the project, says the data proves what it had been saying all along about the facility.

“We have been called alarmist, chicken littles, and the purveyors of ‘fake’ news, but we have been telling the truth all along: the soluble nitrogen being discharged in the Bay from the proposed industrial salmon farm will be the equivalent of 15 [times] what comes out of our city sewage treatment plant,” the group wrote on Facebook. “That is 7.7 million gallons containing 1,600 pounds of nitrogen and 5-6 pounds of phosphorus into the Bay EVERY DAY!”

At Nordic’s presentation on Oct. 4, resident Jim Merkel, who is running as a write-in candidate for Belfast City Council on an anti-salmon-farm platform, echoed those sentiments.

“You say dilution is your solution to pollution … and you say ‘we have the water so we can use it,’ but we at home turn the faucet off when we brush our teeth and when we do dishes and you’re saying it doesn’t matter,” said Merkel. “So I just don’t get that it doesn’t matter that you’re adding more to an already-collapsed system. You’re saying it’s small, but it’s more to an already collapsed system so I don’t get it.”



 




Nordic argued that the amount of nitrogen the facility will discharge, at less than one percent of what is already going into the bay from other sources, is a pretty small amount considering that the bay contains trillions of gallons of water. The company has also emphasized that its discharge levels of ammonia are much lower than background levels.

Other residents expressed concern about disease outbreaks at the facility. Professor Ian Bricknell, a fish disease expert at the University of Maine, said that there’s always a risk of disease, but that it can be reduced significantly by vaccinating the fish. He said that the facility will be able to filter out bacteria because its 0.4-micron filter is a quarter of the size of a bacteria.

“This is the way sterile blood products are made, for example, for transfusion of plasma or saline,” said Bricknell. “They are often ultra filtered to remove all those bacteria.”

Heim said that Nordic will also neutralize potentially harmful bacteria and viruses in the intake water with UV light and quarantine salmon eggs before bringing them in. He said that if there was a disease outbreak, a vet would assess the situation and determine whether the fish needed to be ground up and put in a diluted acid solution to kill the bacteria. The tanks would then be emptied and dry cleaned. Belfast resident Lawrence Reichard pressed the Nordic team on what chemicals would be used in the cleaning, noting that hydrogen peroxide is toxic to crustaceans. Heim said that he would look at a number of cleaners depending on the circumstances, but “generally” avoids hydrogen peroxide.

Belfast resident Mary Bigelow, a former chief operator of a wastewater treatment plant in Vermont, urged the company to provide a manhole that would allow state and municipal officials to sample discharge water. She said that

one company in Vermont lied about the contents it was dumping until the manholes were installed to keep it honest. Ransom said the company has discussed the possibility of allowing the university or representatives of the community to be involved in sampling to allow for more impartial sample collection. Resident Andy Stevenson asked the Nordic team if it would consider implementing a “three-dimensional biological sampling operation” out in the bay that would entail installing a column of kelp, mussels and clams caged at the bottom “as a way to reassure people” that the viability of the bay as a source for additional aquaculture would be preserved. Ransom called the idea an “interesting concept.”

Don Perkins, president and CEO of Gulf of Maine Research Institute and co-founder of Friends of Casco Bay, said the project was “state-of-the-art” and “designed thoughtfully.” He said that the concentrations of nutrients going into the bay would be small and even though the number of gallons of discharge is a big number, it would be “trivial” compared to the volume of water in Belfast Bay. Perkins said that while his organization is interested in aquaculture as a “diversification opportunity,” it has no financial business relationship to the Nordic project.

“Objectively, this is a best-practice project,” he said. “It was introduced into a state that’s known nationally for having best-practice regulatory practice. So I think time will bear out examining this, but the engineering side has been very well done.”