BELFAST, Maine — Dozens implored the Maine Board of Environmental Protection this week to put the brakes on plans for a $500 million land-based salmon farm here.
At a hearing Tuesday night, many who came to the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center wore red to signify their opposition to Nordic Aquafarms’ project. It was the only chance for the public to address the BEP officials during their three-to-four-day visit to the midcoast city, where they will review environmental permit applications required for the project.
“I beg you to deny Nordic this opportunity to destroy our environment, our home, to line their pockets with gold,” Aimee Moffit of Belfast told state environmental officials.
The Norwegian-owned company is angling to build a flagship facility near the Little River in Belfast, with a goal of producing 33,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon every year. It would construct 10 buildings — including several grow-out modules that company officials have described as “the largest aquaculture tanks in the world” — on a 54-acre site that’s currently mostly woods and fields.
The company would cycle through roughly 1,205 gallons of freshwater per minute from the city’s municipal water supply, groundwater wells and Belfast Reservoir No. 1. An additional 4,000 gallons per minute would be drawn in from an intake pipe placed in Belfast Bay. At that rate, water taken from these sources could fill an Olympic-size pool every 2.5 hours.
As much as 7.7 million gallons per day of wastewater from the farm’s recirculating aquaculture system would be filtered through a five-stage filtering and sterilizing process before eventually being discharged into Penobscot Bay.
This week, members of the board have a packed schedule of testimony and cross-examination about various facets of the project. They’ve been hearing from Nordic officials, members of the opposition group Upstream Watch, proponent group The Fish Are Okay and other stakeholders.
Watch: The Fish Are Okay
But Tuesday night was exclusively reserved for public comment. People stood in line for a chance to speak and gave the board an earful when they had an opportunity. Many expressed fears that the project would use too much freshwater and discharge too much waste to Penobscot Bay. The effluent would be dangerously warm, they feared, and contain too-high levels of nutrients. Many are concerned that trees would be cut down and soils would be heavily excavated during the construction of the facilities.
Some said they believe dredging associated with placing the intake and discharge pipes would dislodge mercury dumped in the 1960s and ’70s by the defunct HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. in Orrington that flowed down the Penobscot River into the bay.
Others likened the project to an “industrial fish factory” and said it would irrevocably alter the beauty and wildlife habitats of the popular Little River Trail system nearby.
“I don’t understand how any kind of tourist industry could survive,” Bethany Allgrove of Lincolnville said.
Marsden Brewer, who raises scallops off Deer Isle, said lately he has noticed species such as codfish and small hake returning to Penobscot Bay. He credits that to the closure in 2014 of Verso Paper in Bucksport.
“The bay seems to be coming back a little bit,” he said. “So far, it looks real good. [We] would like to see it stay that way.”
Samantha Jane Ames, a fisherman and aquaculture farmer from Matinicus, said she generally is proud of Maine’s burgeoning aquaculture development.
“This project is something that I’m not proud of,” she told the board. “I hope you all take it seriously, that the fate of our bay is in your hands. Please do not approve these permits.”
Fishing in the area is not expected to be affected by either placement of the pipes or effluent discharge from the fish farm, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which in late January issued comments on the project.
“This project, as proposed, should not result in significant adverse impacts to marine resources, recreation, navigation, or riparian access,” the report stated. “The construction of the pipeline and effluent discharge should have little or no long-term impact to the lobster industry landings or biology.”
But Ron Huber of Rockland, a longtime advocate for the health of Penobscot Bay, asked board members to do a study of the entire Penobscot estuary, from Millinocket to Port Clyde, before making a decision about this and other proposed land-based fish farms.
“Consider the cumulative impacts,” he said. “Look at this from the fish’s point of view, not the developer-wannabe’s point of view.”
Larissa Flimlin of Belfast, who would be a close neighbor to the fish farm, was one of three to speak in favor of the project on Tuesday. She and her husband, a retired aquaculture professor, learned everything they could about the project and said she believes the arguments made against it are generally misleading and wrong.
“This is a good thing in Belfast, and we cannot oppose something that’s good for the town,” she said.
Still, that did not convince Gretchen Heilman Piper of Swanville, who brought three small children with her as she spoke to the board and the crowd about her concerns over effluent, freshwater, carbon use and more.
“I refuse to gamble. I refuse to pass this problem to my children,” she said. “Please, please, please, please deny these permits.”
Written comments on Nordic’s applications may be submitted to the board electronically through 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, at email@example.com or mailed to Board of Environmental Protection, c/o Ruth Ann Burke, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0017.
Watch: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine