It has been 14 months since Nordic Aquafarms officials announced that the company wanted to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast.
But it has not been smooth sailing for Nordic, which has become a lightning rod for protests and even lawsuits from opponents, who criticize the $500 million project as too big, too untested and generally too ill-suited for the quirky midcoast city.
Despite the opposition, though, the Norwegian-owned company is slowly moving forward with its permit applications and will hold another public information meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 26, at the Hutchinson Center. The meeting is required before Nordic can submit its Site Location of Development Act (SLODA) and Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA) permit applications to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which the company is planning to do next month.
But it is more than just a requirement to Marianne Naess, Nordic’s director of operations.
“I do hope that we see a broad attendance of people from Belfast, not only opponents,” she said Wednesday. “And show all the substantial work that we have done to ensure that we are compliant and that this is a good facility for Belfast.”
She said that she and her husband, Erik Heim, the company’s CEO, recently issued a question-and-answer document to neighbors and city officials in an effort to clear up some of the rumors and inaccuracies they said they have heard about the project.
“We realize that any new developments should result in questions and sometimes concerns in a community. We have truthfully answered questions and put information out there over the past year as it has become available,” Heim wrote. “And yet, there are people in Belfast who choose to put aside our answers, credible scientific assessments from leading environmental institutions, and a unique opportunity for sustainable economic development in Belfast. Significant misinformation is being put out there.”
To try and counter that, they said in the document that the company will not use growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms or pesticides in its daily production, that salmon cannot escape the facility and that the project will not dangerously draw down the freshwater aquifer.
“Our message to the citizens of Belfast and Northport is that facts matter, and we ask that those be at the forefront of considerations regarding this project,” Heim wrote.
But that, and the promise of another information session, doesn’t cut much ice with steadfast project skeptics like Linda Buckmaster of Belfast.
“They’re going to have another info session and they’ll tell us what they want us to hear,” she said. “It doesn’t really account for any of the problems that we’ve been talking about.”
Buckmaster, who will not be attending the session because she finds it hard to listen to Nordic officials say things she disbelieves, said that actions speak louder than words.
“I guess the important thing to emphasize is that they have not, in fact, gotten one single permit and they’ve been working on this for a year,” she said. “So many people I talk to in town say, ‘Oh, it’s a done deal.’ No, it’s not. They’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through.”
One of those is finding a legal way to run the salmon’s discharge pipe across submerged lands and into the bay, which has been an issue for Nordic in the last few months.
“The Board of Environmental Protection has given them to April 28 to figure that out,” Buckmaster said. “I do know that somebody in town who lives there has been going door to door and talking to people, encouraging them not to sell or lease their intertidal zone to Nordic.”
However, Naess said that she and others from Nordic have heard from many in the community who support what they are trying to do.
“We feel we have the great majority of the community supporting us,” she said. “We get feedback that people are frustrated by the opponents and their personal attacks. Of op-eds accusing, especially myself and Erik, of lying. Of being criminals. Of not listening to people.”
To Buckmaster, it’s not surprising that Naess would describe feeling as if she has been attacked.
“She is under attack,” Buckmaster said. “She keeps putting herself out there.”
But Naess said that she — and the project — are not going away.
“It’s not like we’re not listening,” she said. “We are listening and are trying to accommodate. But the only way we could tell them that we’re listening is by not building the land-based facility. And we’re here to make this project happen.”
Nordic’s investors are staying the course, too, she said.
“We have great support from our investors. They have also been assured by the relevant authorities here in Maine that they are supportive of the project,” she said. “That we have full support from politicians and the business community in Maine.”
And there are some local voices emerging in support of the project. Erik Klausmeyer of Belfast, who is planning to attend the informational session, is one of those.
“I know [that opponents] are well-intentioned but I think in their effort to preserve the current way of life in Belfast, they are missing the bigger picture of being part of the solution to find green, sustainable solutions for our planet,” he said. “I’m also concerned many of them come from a place of privilege where jobs, growth and increased tax revenue aren’t a concern to them but would be beneficial to many in our community.”