" “You are involved in a very large thing with big profits and big money and Belfast is built on small farms and small businesses, so we are threatened, some of us, that the character of our town that we love is going to disappear.” — Cynthia Anderson of Belfast

“Well you know something, every time somebody comes in we have the same batch of people that show up to bitch. And frankly I’m tired of it.” — Mike Dassett of Belfast
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Concerned residents speak out at Nordic Aquafarms’ community forum at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast on November 28.
Concerned residents speak out at Nordic Aquafarms’ community forum at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast on November 28.
Opponents and supporters of a proposed $150-million land-based salmon farm weren’t shy about airing their feelings at a community forum hosted by Nordic Aquafarms (NAF) at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast last week. Speaking briefly before the forum, NAF CEO Erik Heim said the company will submit its final state and federal environmental permits in the coming weeks and is currently waiting for engineers to complete their final assessments.

“As soon as they are in place we are ready to submit final applications,” said Heim. “That means that new rounds of information meetings will be announced not too far into the future and also another opportunity for public input when those permits are filed.”

Regulatory Worry & Salinating Water with Rock Salt

The company spent the rest of the meeting fielding questions and comments from the public on comment cards and in person. As usual, the bulk of the concerns centered around the environmental impact of the project’s discharge effluent, fears about it ruining the character of the city, and a general philosophical objection to factory farming. Cynthia Anderson of Belfast expressed a common sentiment among project opponents — that for a town that’s “a shining gem of local food, small scale [and] small business,” the NAF project is “like an invasion from outer space.”

“You are involved in a very large thing with big profits and big money and Belfast is built on small farms and small businesses, so we are threatened, some of us, that the character of our town that we love is going to disappear,” she said.

Once again, NAF was asked why the company is not taking out performance bonds to pay for a potential environmental cleanup. Heim reiterated his belief that few businesses would come to Maine if it were required to take out performance bonds and that his company will be using state-of-the-art wastewater treatment systems to ensure that the bay’s ecosystem is not exposed to harmful chemicals.

“If you look at the environmental technologies being employed here, they’re not unique to aquaculture,” said Heim. “These are wastewater treatment systems that are used across many industries. We did not invent them. What we’ve done in our industry segment is we said we’re willing to invest more than the other players in the industry to create a cleaner type of operation and we’re doing that with tried and proven technologies.”

He said that the company is spending most of its time figuring out how to optimize fish welfare and quality in its infrastructure and hatcheries as it scales up. When asked if the city would be left “holding the bag” in the event of a disaster or failure, NAF Chief Technology Officer David Noyes said that the DEP would shut the company down and levy fines of up to $5,000 per day. He added that the facility would have six modules with three tanks in each of them.

“All of these are closed containment tanks so if something happened to one of them it’s not going to happen to the whole facility. It’s not technically possible,” he said. “So it’s not like you’re going to go through a major disaster throughout the whole facility.”

Heim also argued that because aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, if the company were to go out of business it would be a “tremendous investment opportunity” for another investor to take over the facility. However, Belfast resident Ethan Hughes countered that he was not convinced that the state would properly regulate the plant because it didn’t contain the leaching of mercury into the Penobscot River from the Holtrachem plant in Orrington.

“That’s not an answer that I’ll accept, that the state is going to be in control and make sure that you don’t pollute,” said Hughes. “Because if we look at Maine we see that there are thousands of chemicals, clear cutting and all kinds of things that are affecting families and children and communities.”

Heim replied that the plant will be subject to internal and external audits and that the company has a “strong interest” in making sure there isn’t any contamination because it would be a PR disaster.

Randall Parr of Appleton asked why the company doesn’t move the facility from the ocean to his own town.

“We have tons of water coming off Appleton Ridge and many other places,” said Parr. “You could easily salinate the water with rock salt, which is very inexpensive.”

Noyes said that while it’s possible to salinate water with rock salt, it doesn’t have the correct micronutrient profile that fish need to develop properly so it would cause deformities in the fish, making them unmarketable. Another commenter pointed out that the Wisconsin-based company Superior Fresh is able to operate its aquaponic facility, which grows vegetables as well as salmon, away from the sea. But Noyes replied that the fish are a byproduct of the aquaponic operation and the majority of that company’s sales are vegetables, not salmon. Heim said NAF spent four months doing a search along the coastline before it settled on the spot in Belfast, and one of the major problems it ran into were the major pollution areas, especially up the rivers.

“One of our most important criteria was clean water, a clean product, and I can tell you, finding a good site next to the ocean with clean water and other infrastructure availability is extremely difficult,” he said. “So this site in Belfast came up as pretty much the only one that met the criteria. But other sites still want to be in the competition.”

Another questioner noted that NAF plans to remove 85 percent of the nitrogen from its discharge and asked why it doesn’t remove 100 percent. Heim replied that in the future NAF may be able to improve its numbers as water treatment technology advances, but he noted that its nitrogen rates are better than those of any other land-based fish farm. By comparison, the average nitrogen content of the discharge from the proposed Whole Ocean facility in Bucksport will be 2.6 times the maximum level of Nordic Aquafarms.

The Reichard-Republican Journal Controversy

Nordic was also asked if it had influenced the Republican Journal’s firing of columnist Lawrence Reichard, an activist who has written several critical op-eds about the proposed facility and has also been accused of misreporting to suit his agenda. In an October column titled “Two Hours with Dr. Bent Urup,” Reichard wrote about his trip to Denmark where he interviewed Danish scientist Bent Urup, who was an early developer of recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology and was once the CEO and chief technology officer of Sashimi Royal, a yellowtail kingfish RAS company that was sold to an investment group in which Nordic Aquafarms had a majority share in 2017.

Reichard wrote that Urup “painted a picture of an RAS industry — and a Nordic Aquafarms — in disarray and suffering from poor management.” He quoted Urup as questioning Nordic’s ability to run RAS facilities as well as stating that Sashimi Royal’s Maximus smolt farm had problems with disease and was only operating at 10 percent capacity, which was causing the main plant to operate at half capacity. However, when contacted later by the seafood industry news site Undercurrent News, Urup said Reichard either misquoted him or took his quotes out of context to make him sound critical of NAF. On the contrary, he said that NAF “has got two very good projects in the northern part of Denmark.”

“I have 100% no idea on how much fish they are producing at Maximus and Sashimi right now,” Urup told Undercurrent News, adding, “I have also never heard that they should have suffered from diseases in any of the facilities, which I doubt they have.”

Reichard has stood by his reporting. NAF Commercial Director Marianne Naess said at the forum that the company did not threaten the Republican Journal “with any libel or lawsuit” and only spoke to the newspaper after the decision was made to dismiss Reichard.

Merkel Responds to Criticism of Opponents

Jim Merkel of Belfast, who ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for city council on a platform of opposing the fish farm, chastised NAF for allegedly characterizing opponents as a “small group from away” and said it was “hurtful” to hear it describing the community as fearful. He said his getting 20 percent of the vote in the last election was “quite a bit for a write-in candidate” and criticized Heim for issuing a statement after the election stating that “the citizens of Belfast have spoken” by electing councilors who support the fish farm moving forward through the permitting process. Merkel said that NAF should have first held a meeting in a circle with the community a year ago to hear from citizens whether they wanted the facility in town.

“As a community to be put in a position where you’re the experts and we’re the dumb people asking silly questions and you can always, as the expert in your field, make us seem silly,” said Merkel.

To which Naess replied, “We apologize if we have labeled you. This is part of moving forward. Could we do that in a more friendly, civil way? We would like to do that on both sides.”

Heim said that the company was not out to characterize the community as “fearful,” but said there have been several false rumors about the company planning to put pipes above the the intertidal zone and developing other parts of the city.

“So I’m saying somebody’s making up stories in this town and they’re not coming from us,” said Heim. “And that’s why I’m referring to that particular fear issue. Somebody’s creating stories to create fear.”

Merkel also questioned why the company doesn’t put the facility on a brownfield rather than the “greenbelt.” But Heim said it would risk contamination if he put the project on a brownfield. Merkel also expressed concerns that there are antibiotics, bleach and “3 or 4 pages of chemicals” listed on the company’s DEP permit applications. Carter Cyr, NAF’s production manager, said a lot of the chemicals are standard cleaning chemicals used in households or restaurants and that the medications are for a “worst case scenario.” Noyes said that any bleach used could be deactivated using sodium thiosulfate before going through the treatment process and hitting the discharge pipe.

Solid Waste & Carbon Emissions Concerns

One questioner asked why the company can’t recycle the water rather than discharging it. Noyes said that isn’t possible because, for biosecurity purposes, the company will isolate the fish from each other in various cohorts and grow units and then take all of the discharge water and solids to send to one centralized water treatment plant.

“So if you mix all that water, for biosecurity purposes you would not then want to send that back to those individual units,” said Noyes. “You have then eliminated all the biosecurity barriers that you created by separating those units.”

When asked about what it will do with all of the solid waste generated from the facility, Cyr said that the company is currently in discussions with various contractors that want the waste, including at least one anaerobic digester. A couple of locals complained that salmon farming is a carbon intensive process and questioned what the company’s plan is in the face of climate change.

Heim noted that the US imports 90 percent of its seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and most of it is air freighted. He also cited a 2016 study by the Freshwater Institute and SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture, a marine technology and industry research organization, which concluded that the carbon footprint of salmon produced in land-based RAS delivered fresh to market in the U.S. is “less than half that of open net pen salmon delivered from Norway to the U.S. by air freight.” Heim said the NAF facility would truck its product to serve just the New England market and would be releasing a traffic study on how many trucks would go in and out of the facility, as part of another permit.

Another questioner expressed concerns that fishing practices used by companies that produce fish meal for the salmon feed could be starving impoverished people in the southern hemisphere. Heim said that NAF is currently working on securing a sustainable feed with alternatives to fish meal that have the same fatty acids and omega ingredients as fish meal.

“What I do know is that every year new products are coming into the market to deal with this challenge because if you look four or five years ago fish feed had 40 percent or more fish meal in them,” said Heim. “Today it’s 10 percent or less, so it’s been pressured downward.”

One man stood up and dressed down the NAF team for holding more of a “public relations event” than a “community dialogue.”

“We’re not going to talk about whether we’re going to do this. We’re going to talk about how it’s going to happen and how it’s going to move forward,” he said. “We want something that if you understand what community dialogue means it’s a conversation. It’s not ping pong between five employees who stand to possibly gain a shitload of money and a whole room full of people who are not being paid to be here right now. We care about our home!”

At that point, Belfast lobsterman Mike Dassett stood up and defended the company, calling opponents a “disgrace” and noting that most fishermen have questions and concerns but haven’t been “overtly opposed” to the project.

“When we’ve got people who want to come into Belfast, invest in Belfast, you guys all want to say you want to save your taxes,” he said. “Well you know something, every time somebody comes in we have the same batch of people that show up to bitch. And frankly I’m tired of it.”

Shortly after that a man behind him held up a jar of water and announced that someone else wanted to speak. “This is our Little River and her question is for the city of Belfast: Are you concerned about the future of our precious resource drinking water?” he said as the voices in the crowd murmured “Yes! Yes!”

But still others in the audience were supportive of the project, including Greg Whitcomb, who owns a local business. “I value this community. My son grew up here, my grandkids are growing up here,” he said. “We welcome you with open arms to come here and invest in our community.”

Ethan Hughes, a recent transplant from Massachusetts who is a staunch opponent of the project, complained that some of his comments at an October forum had been labeled by the local press and others as “xenophobic” because he told Heim and NAF: “You are guests in our country and not the other way around” and later added a sarcastic “So, welcome.” In his defense, Hughes argued that he had “hosted people from over a hundred different countries” at his house.

“And so I just want you to look around the room and this is a message to the City Hall, this is a message to the Chamber of Commerce, this is a message to Nordic [Aquafarms], this is a message to the Republican Journal,” he said. “I want you to silently stand up if in this process you have felt — and this is just feedback, so that [NAF] can take it in and hopefully adjust so that the town isn’t ripped apart — if you felt silenced, if you felt intimidated, if you felt labeled, if you felt attacked, if you felt disempowered, if you felt ridiculed, if you felt not listened to, I invite you to stand up.”

Several project opponents as well as Heim and the NAF team stood up.