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Belfast and Bucksport are separated by just 24 miles, and both are closely connected to the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay.
But you would never know that from the very different way that two proposals for large, land-based salmon farms have been received by members of their respective communities over the past year.
In Belfast, opposition to Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed $150 million salmon farm is fierce and outspoken, and it seemed to begin almost immediately after the Norwegian company announced its plans at the end of January to develop a parcel of land by the Little River.
In Bucksport, there is virtually no vocal opposition as Whole Oceans works on building its own $250 million indoor aquaculture facility on the site of the former Verso paper mill. Many seem optimistic about the role the salmon farm could play in the town.
On the surface, it is no great surprise that the two communities would react so differently to these similar proposals.
Bucksport recently lost its paper mill and residents have been working hard to reinvent their industrial town, with some notable successes in the form of new seafood processing facilities and a maritime training facility in the works on part of the former mill site.
Belfast, on the other hand, is in a period of relative economic prosperity, and those who oppose the project do not think the promise of jobs and investment is worth the possible environmental price.
The Bucksport fish farm would be built on the former mill site in an industrial zone, while the Belfast farm is slated for a previously undeveloped site located relatively close to homes and a well-loved recreational trail.
“I think it has to do with a point in each town’s history,” said Steve Ryan, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, things are really good in Belfast, and there’s no need to take any given proposal, especially one that’s so outside the box. [The salmon farm] is so big. It’s so innovative. It’s such new technology. All these things have rattled Belfast.”
‘A stake through the heart’
In Bucksport, words such as “big,” “innovative” and “new” have not alarmed residents nearly as much.
At least officially, they have not offered a word against the $250 million proposed farm from Whole Oceans, said Gregg Wood of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality, who has handled public comments the DEP has received about both salmon farms as part of the agency’s permitting reviews.
In fact, the only public comments the DEP received opposing the Bucksport project came from two Belfast residents and one Belfast native, according to filings Wood released to the Bangor Daily News. Those three comments were among eight total the DEP received about the proposed Bucksport salmon farm.
The Belfast project, Wood said, has generated more than 70 comments that DEP officials judge substantial — many from residents and most critical of it.
“There was little to no opposition to the one in Bucksport,” Wood said. “There was quite a bit of opposition to the one in Belfast.”
Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard expressed her dismay about those oppositional voices from Belfast last month in an opinion piece in Belfast’s Republican Journal newspaper.
“[Some comments] appear to be simply attempts to kill this project and the Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast,” she wrote. “It is depressing and frustrating that this community, which is working so hard on a bright future, could be held hostage by those with no connection to here, who, armed with little credible information, seek to drive a stake through the heart of an industry that could have so many positive impacts for the future of Maine.”
‘No false pretenses’
The differences between the two communities might simply come down to this — Bucksport lost a paper mill and Belfast did not, said Peter Stewart, a member of the Bucksport Town Council.
While Bucksport’s loss wasn’t exactly unexpected, the social and economic shock of the December 2014 shutdown of the Verso paper mill — with 570 workers, the town’s largest single employer — was profound, Stewart said.
And if there were any doubt that 84 years of papermaking in town had come to an end, the fact that a scrap metal recycling firm bought the 250-acre mill site confirmed it for even the most gung-ho mill supporters, he said. The millworkers’ union sued to stop the purchase by American Iron and Metal of East Montreal, Quebec, but that effort failed.
“We lost it at the right time,” Stewart said. Whereas a number of towns saw repeated restart attempts at their mills, “We kind of figured almost immediately that it was done.”
“There were no false pretenses,” said John Paul LaLonde, a member of Bucksport’s Community and Economic Development Committee. The Verso mill “had a very quick death rather than a slow death.”
And unlike some of Maine’s other mill towns, Bucksport started attacking the loss of its major employer methodically soon after the closure, and those efforts have persisted. Town leaders started holding meetings addressing the town’s future a month after the paper mill closed.
Whole Oceans’ plans for the mill site are a big part of it. Although the predictions are preliminary, LaLonde said he believes that once it is operating fully, the salmon farm will replace about two-thirds of the property tax payments the town received from the paper mill.
“I don’t see any problems with this,” LaLonde said. “I think of this as just the repurposing of a site.”
Whole Oceans spokeswoman Angie Helton declined to speculate on what revenues Bucksport might get from her client.
‘They’ve moved to Nirvana’
It hasn’t been that long since Belfast was contending with hard times of its own, according to City Councilor Mike Hurley, a supporter of the salmon farm.
In recent decades, Belfast has had to reinvent itself numerous times, including in the 1980s, after the chicken and sardine processing industries moved out, and in the mid-2000s, after global credit card giant MBNA sold its holdings.
Even just 10 years ago, Hurley was disturbed enough by the empty downtown storefronts that he ran for city council on an economic development platform. City leaders are proud today of Belfast’s diversified economy, which includes small mom-and-pop stores and corporate businesses, and which has been hailed as a regional success story.
“The opponents of the fish farm, unfortunately, many of them have never seen Belfast when it wasn’t healthy,” Hurley said. “These are all retiring baby boomers that think they’ve moved to Nirvana, and they don’t get it.”
Linda Buckmaster, who is part of Local Citizens for SMART Growth: Salmon Farm, a Belfast opposition group that recently obtained nonprofit status, disagrees. The resistance to Nordic Aquafarms happened because people in the community are concerned about potential negative environmental effects, she said, not because they are retirees.
“The people who are resisting the fish farm are a wide variety in terms of their backgrounds and what they want,” she said. “Belfast has all these regulations that are very, very advanced and pro-environment that I suspect they don’t have in Bucksport … the fish farm just doesn’t fit into the picture. I call it a cognitive dissonance.”
While opposition to the salmon farm has been loud, it is important to note it has its limits. Three outspoken salmon farm foes ran for the Belfast City Council this fall, and all three lost.
As far as why opposition is louder in Belfast, Buckmaster said it might be a matter of the people who happen to live in each place.
“Waldo County in general has been settled by a bunch of old activists, who are ready to get involved and know how to get involved,” she said.
‘It’s not over yet’
So far, Whole Oceans is moving a bit more quickly through the permitting process than Nordic Aquafarms.
Whole Oceans received its wastewater discharge permit from the state Nov. 21. LaLonde and Richard Rotella, Bucksport’s economic development director, said they expect the company to close on the deal to move onto the Verso site when the 30-day appeal period on the permit ends later this month.
Whole Oceans has eight permits left to secure. They include a facilities permit from the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; a salmon egg import permit from the Maine Department of Marine Resources; and a general construction permit from the DEP, Helton said.
Bucksport officials are reviewing Whole Oceans’ applications for building, shoreline zoning, sewer use and entrance permits, and a federal salmon egg permit is pending as well, Helton said.
Whole Oceans officials will give the Bucksport Town Council an update at a Dec. 13 meeting, Rotella said.
Nordic Aquafarms is expecting to get a draft discharge permit back from the state “any day now,” according to spokesman Ted O’Meara. The company expects to start submitting other permit applications early next year.
“Things are moving forward very deliberately,” he said.
Meanwhile, the sometimes-existential, often-heated debate over Nordic Aquafarms is likely to rage on.
“It’s not over yet,” Buckmaster said.