Nordic Aquafarms President Erik Heim, left, listens as hydrologists representing his company field questions on February 11 from the state Board of Environmental Protection.
Nordic Aquafarms President Erik Heim, left, listens as hydrologists representing his company field questions on February 11 from the state Board of Environmental Protection.
Nordic Aquafarms posted to Facebook the morning of February 11: “Showtime!”

Representatives of the company spent most of the next week in front of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, which is reviewing four critical permits for Nordic’s proposed land-based Atlantic salmon farm in Belfast. The hearings, held from February 11 to 14 at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, were the most exhaustive public review of the contentious project to date. 

A little more than two years ago in the same conference room, Nordic Aquafarms went public with its plan to build the largest land-based salmon farm in the world, producing 33,000 metric tons per year. That distinction was snapped up almost immediately by Atlantic Sapphire, which has since broken ground on a former tomato field outside of Miami and plans to open the first phase of a 220,000 metric ton salmon farm in August. 

Erik Heim, Nordic Aquafarms’ founder and president, gave a nod to the slow permitting process on February 11, saying his company is “a few million dollars poorer and a few thousand pages richer” than in 2018. He delivered the line with a laugh, the first of several that day that suggested a weaker man would have lost his mind.

Heim said Nordic’s record — no major incidents, disease outbreaks or escapes — speaks for itself. The company has three fish-rearing facilities in Norway and Denmark and is seeking approval for another in Eureka, California. Heim said only a fraction of the salmon eaten in the U.S. is grown here, and the market is expected to grow to several times its current size in the coming decades. “In the end, all that matters is what you produce,” he said. An attendee took down the statement and attempted to use it against him at a public hearing that night.

Susan Lessard of BEP asked Heim what purchase commitments Nordic has. Lessard is town manager in Bucksport, where Whole Oceans has already received permits for a smaller land-based salmon farm. In its initial announcement in 2018, Whole Oceans said it had pre-sold 10 years’ worth of fish from the facility. Heim said Nordic hasn’t pre-sold because demand for Atlantic salmon is growing so quickly that there’s no benefit to locking in sales.

Nordic’s parent company, Nordic Aquafarms AS, has raised $63.6 million in equity for all of its operations, including its U.S. subsidiary, which includes the Maine and California project, Brenda Chandler, chief financial officer for Nordic Aquafarms Inc. (NAF), said. The Belfast project would be split into two phases, the first costing $270 million, the second $230 million. Originally, it was to be funded by equity, but “debt has entered the picture,” which she said is typical. Chandler said NAF is working with Carnegie, a Stockholm-based investment bank, and is in talks with another investment bank that she didn’t name. Additionally, Nordic has letters-of-intent shareholders, who are “ready to go,” she said, and “other investors are waiting to enter this” if NAF is approved for permits. 

To navigate the stand-off — needing funding to get permits, and permits to get funding — Marianne Naess, Nordic’s commercial director, said she expects Nordic would receive provisional permits from the state that could be brought back to investors, who would see that the project is effectively approved, and so on.

Some of the official intervenors challenging Nordic at the BEP hearings argued that the $63.6 million in equity is just 12 percent of the projected cost of the Belfast facility and isn’t earmarked for that project alone. They also expressed concern that the money is being raised by the Norwegian parent company, which could decide to cut bait on Belfast.

Lawrence Reichard, a Belfast activist and freelance journalist with intervenor status, prodded Nordic’s representatives about their reluctance to post a decommissioning bond, so that Belfast wouldn’t be stuck with its buildings if the company fails. City Planner Wayne Marshall said the city has required such bonds for three communications towers and is requiring one for a planned 20-acre solar farm on Perkins Road because the structures don’t have other uses. He said the case is less clear with Nordic Aquafarms.

Reichard, who formerly wrote a column in The Republican Journal that was highly critical of NAF and traveled to Norway and Denmark to find holes in the company’s claims, said he is prepared to “do anything short of violence and property damage” to defend his home community. On Tuesday, that meant wedging testimony into his cross-examination of NAF’s experts, while Nordic’s attorney, Joanna Tourangeau, repeatedly, and successfully, objected.

During a break in the hearing, another opponent assessed Reichard’s strategy: “I don’t think we’ll make a lot of progress with BEP if the opponents don’t stay on topic.”

The salmon farm would draw from three freshwater sources — groundwater from wells, surface water from the lower reservoir on Little River, and city water. Nordic’s senior vice president of projects, Ed Cotter, said this would allow the facility to cover a shortage in any one source.

The amount the facility would draw out of the ground would be variable, he said.

Cotter said the capacity at the site would determine how the system is built, which raised eyebrows among board members. Heim clarified that freshwater would be used to adjust the salinity in the tanks, which would be predominantly saltwater from the bay. Nordic has an ideal salinity in mind, he said, but there is a range that is suitable for raising salmon. 

Company representatives fielded questions about effects on nearby private wells, which are protected by a zoning condition enacted by the city that requires NAF to correct any problems caused by its groundwater extraction. Salt was detected in one of NAF’s test wells. Predictably, opinions on what this meant for the long term varied.

Of 42 speakers at an open comment session that evening, 39 opposed the project, primarily for environmental reasons.

The weeklong event, part trial, part “Shark Tank,” ran 12 hours on its first day. The board seemed none the worse for wear. A reporter in attendance likened it to a campaign. A young man in a blaze-orange deerstalker commended the board, which was in its tenth hour of testimony. “I’ve been sitting at the back,” he said. “You guys really look like you’re paying attention, so thank you, I appreciate it. It’s not easy.”

A woman asked for a moment of silence and got tacit agreement from the room. A man put in a word for the fungi of the Little River watershed — a “pharmacy for the bees and other pollinators, which are in decline” — and closed with a quote from Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after.”

Marsden Brewer, a scallop farmer from Stonington, testified that the fishery is finally coming back after decades of industrial abuse. He feared the NAF proposal would set it back again.

Sally Brophy of Belfast challenged a statement that Naess made to the Christian Science Monitor: “To feed the world, we have to do things differently.”

“Nordic isn’t trying to feed the world,” Brophy said. “They’re trying to feed people who can afford expensive fish. They want to do this by digging a giant hole in the Belfast Bay watershed, then filling that hole with huge concrete and steel machines that require enormous amounts of power and water … ”

Hilary Emma read a cautionary letter from neighbors of Nordic’s Fredrikstad, Norway, salmon farm: “Initially we were all positive and found the dialog with the company to be good. Now not so. First the building process lasted ages … during construction, a gray haze of clay dust engulfed our homes, gardens and cars, time and again, as well as the lungs of our kindergarten kids. All that is history; terrible while it lasted; now comes the future … a strange and constant humming noise 24/7.”

As the night wore on, the speakers got younger. Thirty- and 20-somethings lined up. Young parents stepped to the lectern with children at their sides or strapped to their chests. The final speaker of the evening, Shana Hanson, had come directly from a birth. She apologized to the board for missing the earlier part of the meeting and testified with a container of milk inside her vest that she was warming for the newborn goat.

In the days that followed, the board heard testimony and cross-examination on wildlife, wetlands and streams, stormwater, air quality, blasting and noise. Supporters were represented at the hearings by The Fish Are Okay, a citizen group with official intervenor status. The group posted regular digests to its Facebook page for those not in attendance. After a dust-up between intervenor Paul Bernacki, an opponent of the salmon farm, and Nordic’s representatives, the entry read: “Not worthwhile, nor productive, to describe details here but enough to say that both integrity and civility in our democratic process suffered mightily for about an hour.” 

In a coffee shop on the third day of the hearing, Jim Merkel, an opponent, offered an explanation of why we are now raising fish on land in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS): Technological advancements led to overfishing — regulations always took a back seat to money, he said — and when the fisheries disappeared, net pens were pitched as the savior of the industry. Fishermen sold their boats and worked for the big companies. Years later, when the net pen operations folded, the fishermen had no boats and many had severed the link to their craft. The environment remained despoiled. “Now RAS is the savior,” he said.

On Facebook, Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said he would drink the water from the salmon farm. “It’s going to be fine,” he said. “We will be lessening the ozone hole by using less jet fuel to carry the current fish in. Yes it’s our air it’s our sky the Earth spins. Move along, nothing to see here. I’m with ya enough is more than enough.”

Later sessions of the BEP hearing focused on wastewater, which has been the subject of intense public scrutiny and criticism. Nordic says the water will have been cleaned of excess nutrients to a degree unheard of in the industry. Based on its wastewater system (MEPDES) permit application, this is likely true. However, opponents say the quality of the wastewater will be worse than what’s already in the bay, which is also unquestionably true.

Before leaving the facility, the wastewater would be blasted with ultraviolet light and run through screens fine enough to catch bacteria — .04 microns. This precision would be applied to a torrent of water. Experts for the opposition group Upstream Watch, unfamiliar with the exact specifications of the system, wondered how the filters would not constantly be clogged.

Kyle Aveni-Deforge, a marine ecologist testifying for Upstream Watch, called Nordic’s filtration system commendable but, by the same token, concerning. If a system designed to filter 99 percent of nutrients loses one percent of that efficiency, he said, it’s now letting double the amount of nutrients through.

The pipeline itself would be buried in shallower water and the intertidal zone. The farther reaches would sit a foot above the seafloor, which is mostly mud, as deep as 10 meters in places. To keep the bundled pipeline — a pair of 30-inch intake pipes and a single 36-inch diameter outfall pipe — from floating away, as one of Nordic’s experts testified would be their natural tendency, the bunch would be tethered to anchors sunk through the mud to bedrock. The end of the pipe would have three ports to diffuse the effluent and be pinched into a “duckbill” to keep the rate of flow steady. Nathan Dill, a coastal engineer testifying on behalf of Nordic Aquafarms, likened it to a party favor horn that unrolls when you blow into it.

The water coming from the salmon farm would be 59 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The bay at 20 feet is 36 to 54 degrees. Nordic’s representatives said the wastewater would cool quickly to a level that passes state requirements. Even in the worst case, Dill said, the effluent would cool to nearly the ambient temperature “within tens of feet.” Later it was estimated that this dispersion, viewed from above, would leave a warm spot roughly 20 feet by 100 feet. 

Tyler Parent, a fisheries biologist testifying for Nordic Aquafarms, challenged public concern about the contents of the wastewater. “If the water coming out of that discharge pipe was bad, it would not be conducive to raising these fish inside their facility,” he said.

After the hearings, Ed Cotter of Nordic Aquafarms said he felt confident that Nordic made its case. “There’s a great discussion,” he said. “I think we clarified a lot of the concerns that people have voiced. We put real facts to it, and we were able to explain everything very clearly to the people that matter the most in the process, which is the deciders, the board.”

Kim Ervin Tucker, attorney for several intervenors opposing the project, said she hopes the board considers the “really incredible evidence” presented by opponents, for whom she believes the process has been more difficult than for Nordic Aquafarms. “They build this into the cost of business,” she said. “Private citizens do not, and that’s an incredible burden when the applicant is the one with the burden of proof.”

The comment period closed February 18. Maine Assistant Attorney General Peggy Bensinger speaking on behalf of the board, said BEP and Department of Environmental Protection staff will analyze the information and testimony from the hearings and make a recommendation to the board. The board then will deliberate at one of its regular meetings and either adopt or deny the applications, with or without changes, or send department staff back to the drawing board.