Midcoast residents packed the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast Wednesday night to participate in a community dialogue about Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed multimillion dollar land-based salmon farm.
Many of the people in the room shared beliefs that the Norwegian-owned company putting down stakes in Belfast would negatively impact the small-town feel of the city, use too much water and pollute Penobscot Bay, among the slate of concerns that have been repeatedly shared since the company announced its plans last winter.
But some new voices spoke up, too, including Greg Whitcomb of Morrill. The landscape contractor runs his small business with his son and was curious about what the fish farm might mean for the area. It was the company’s fifth public meeting, but the first that he has attended. And when he heard voice after voice decrying Nordic Aquafarms, he wanted to add a different perspective to the mix.
“We welcome you with open arms,” he said. “I am a small business owner, and we can’t wait for you to get here.”
On Thursday, Whitcomb explained why he felt compelled to speak. If Nordic builds the land-based salmon farm as proposed, it would change the economic outlook for the entire midcoast area, he said, and to his mind, that is a positive thing.
“That was the first meeting that I’ve been to, and it seemed to be this overwhelming negative vibe. What the heck is this about? Why aren’t we welcoming them to town? I had to say something,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I’m certainly concerned about our way of life and our environment. But it’s quite evident to me that these guys aren’t here to destroy it. They’re here to make money, obviously, but they’re not going to destroy the environment while doing so. That just doesn’t make sense. Why everybody is so opposed to them is beyond me.”
Whitcomb’s view was not shared by the majority of those who spoke at the public dialogue. Among other things, the company fielded questions about whether they are willing to put up a bond against some kind of catastrophic failure.
“If you were to fail, take me into the future,” a woman in the crowd said. “What happens to all the tanks, and land, and the pipe going into the bay?”
After her question, Nordic Aquafarms founder Erik Heim said that whatever happens, the company will have built a lot of infrastructure in Belfast.
“The worst thing is that valuable infrastructure will be established here and that will be attractive to investors,” he said.
That answer wasn’t enough for project skeptics such as Ethan Hughes, who told Heim that he wants a better response.
“It’s a disaster out there, planetarily,” he said. “And that’s not acceptable to me.”
During the information session, Nordic officials said that they are getting ready to file applications for their Site Location and Development Act, or SLOTA, permit, and for their Natural Resources Protection Act, or NRPA, permit, and are expecting to receive a draft discharge permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection very soon. Once that permit is issued, people will have 30 days to submit comments about it.
The company also gave more detailed information about the numbers of jobs they expect will be created when the salmon farm is built. Marianne Naess, the company’s director of operations, said Tuesday night that 55 to 60 jobs will be created. Some of those will require a bachelor’s degree or higher, but others will not.
“Running a facility like this is quite complicated,” she said, adding that they do not want to have high employee turnover. “We will pay them well. We have benefits. We will train them. It’s important to us to have a stable workforce.”
Some in the room on Wednesday night had an issue with the community dialogue itself, taking the company to task for not including members of the community in their plans from the get-go.
“You ask how to move forward — this is the first conversation that you’ve offered us,” said Jim Merkel, who recently ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Belfast City Council. “Whatever we ask, you say, ‘Don’t worry. We have it figured out.’ It’s hurtful to hear that the community’s full of fear.”
But not everyone felt that way. Belfast lobsterman Mike Dassett added a forceful voice to the mix.
“What I see in here is a disgrace for Belfast,” he said, referring to the salmon farm opponents who protested with signs before the dialogue began. “What I see here in front of you is the only company actually looking to the future … Every time somebody comes in, we have the same batch of people who come out to bitch, and frankly I’m tired of it. That’s the bottom line. Cut them some slack.”
Cynthia Anderson of Belfast chimed in with an emotional plea about the values of the city she loves.
“Our town is a shining gem of local food, small-scale, small business. This is like an invasion from outer space for some of us,” she said. “You are involved in a very large thing with high profits. We are threatened, some of us, that the character of our town will disappear. Even if you are successful in all you do, some of us just don’t value that at all. It’s just not where we want to be. We value local control, and we’re scared, and I don’t know if you understand that.”
Heim responded at some length, saying that he agrees that industry, and humans, have harmed the planet, and everyone needs to do better.
“We’re listening,” he said. “Our focus right now is to do it as sensibly and good as possible. I feel that personally, the world doesn’t have to be one or the other. Small scale or large scale. The world needs both.”