Tempers were hot and patience was at a low ebb Monday night for some who attended a tense public information meeting organized by the company that would like to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast.
The meeting, held at the Hutchinson Center, was described as a voluntary, supplemental one to talk about wastewater discharge, according to moderator Joanna Tourangeau, an attorney from Portland-based law firm Drummond Woodsum. But opponents of Nordic Aquafarms decided it was also a good opportunity to speak out about other aspects of the company and its proposal. At least one opponent mentioned potential litigation against the company, and at times a frustrated murmur of voices could be heard from people in the room.
Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian-based company, announced last winter that it wanted to construct a salmon farm near Little River, close to the Northport town line. Many in the community are generally in favor of the property tax relief and jobs that could stem from the development, which is projected to cost from $150 million to $500 million, and which would have a capacity of more than 60 million pounds of salmon per year. But plenty of others in the region have loudly fought against the proposal. The company submitted its first permit application in October and has several more federal, state and local permits to secure before it can move forward. One lawsuit has been filed against the city of Belfast by project neighbors who object to the way officials changed the zoning to allow Nordic to proceed with its applications.
A previous public hearing on the company’s discharge permit had been held in October.
One of the people who spoke Monday was Lawrence Reichard, a Belfast-based freelance journalist. Over the past year, he wrote eight or so editorials in the Republican Journal weekly newspaper blasting Nordic Aquafarms until the paper’s editor recently let him go. Reichard did not mince words.
“You have presented a lot of information here this evening. But I think that underlying all of it is the credibility of Nordic Aquafarms. Without credibility, none of this means anything. I think that there are serious credibility issues with Nordic Aquafarms,” he said, as he listed several specific grievances, including his belief that the company has publicly downplayed its opposition and that it has not corrected its website to detail the true length of its outflow pipe. “What I want to know is when are you going to start telling the truth about this community and to the community. And why should we believe anything you say?”
His words were greeted with a smattering of applause from the audience, but then Erik Heim, the founder of Nordic Aquafarms, stood up to give his own response.
“You’re talking about credibility. You’ve been on a crusade ever since we came here,” Heim said, as people in the crowd loudly heckled him. “Much of what you’ve written about has been demonstrably false. We can prove this with facts, and we’ve put facts forward on a number of the issues.”
Tensions also flared when Belfast lobsterman Mike Dassett and attorney Kim Ervin Tucker sparred briefly over who knew more about lobsters. Ervin Tucker, who is representing both the Maine Lobstering Union and Upstream Watch, a Belfast-based environmental group that opposes the project, brought up the toxic mercury that was dumped in Penobscot River by operators of the former HoltraChem chemical plant in Orrington.
“I am someone who knows about lobsters. I’ve been working with this industry for a long time,” the attorney said.
But Dassett, who broke into the line of speakers despite people shouting him down, disagreed.
“No, you haven’t. Don’t lie. You are lying,” he said to Ervin Tucker, adding that a Nordic Aquafarms official had handed him the microphone, “because I am a lobsterman in this bay. And I have given them a lot of information about the mercury studies, on the currents of the bay.”
“All that’s false,” Ervin Tucker shot back at Dassett.
Additionally, some in the crowd challenged company officials about the path of the outflow pipe, which they said appeared to cross the intertidal and offshore properties of several Northport landowners. Paul Bernacki of Belmont, who is against the project, insistently asked to see the surveyor’s report that had been commissioned by Nordic Aquafarms.
“That survey, which would clear this whole matter up has, for the last week, been refused to me,” he said. “I just want to know: Will you release this survey to me?”
Tourangeau, the attorney, told him that was unlikely to happen.
Not everyone in the audience was opposed to the project, however. One man, George Seaver of Waldoboro, vice president of fertilizer manufacturer Ocean Organics, said he was interested in buying some of the fish waste from Nordic Aquafarms. He asked Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting, an environmental consulting firm that is doing work for Nordic, to help him understand the amount of water that would be discharged into Penobscot Bay from the salmon farm.
When completed, the facility would discharge as much as 7.7 million gallons of treated water per day into Penobscot Bay, according to its Maine Department of Environmental Protection application for a pollutant discharge elimination system.
“Because I want your fish [waste], I want you to be able to put this into perspective,” he told Ransom.
“While 7 million gallons sounds like a lot of water, it’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the 720 trillion gallons in the bay,” she said. “We all know that this bay has capacity for what Nordic is proposing, and that’s why we’re anticipating they’ll get a discharge permit.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Paul Bernacki's name. It has been corrected.