BELFAST, Maine — Mainers casually following the nearly three-year-long effort to construct a $500 million land-based salmon facility in Belfast might be wondering what’s taken so long.
It’s a thought that has probably crossed the minds of Norwegian aquaculture entrepreneurs Marianne Naess and Erik Heim, too. After a lengthy process marked by fierce local opposition and complex, unresolved legal battles, the Nordic Aquafarms executives remain hopeful the company can soon move forward with its project and get to work raising fish.
Earlier this month, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection approved draft water, air and land permits for the project — something that the Nordic executives consider to be a milestone.
After a comment period, the board is expected to issue the final permits. Any challenges could be fought in court.
Nordic also has gotten results from additional mercury testing in the intertidal sediments where they want to bury their pipes. Eleven of 30 samples taken showed no detectable mercury, and of the others, the highest reading was .247 parts per million, lower than the .3 parts per million that is the “action level,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there is another hurdle lingering — two land-use lawsuits that are still pending in Waldo County Superior and U.S. District courts. Those cases are important: A judge’s ruling could force Nordic to find another path to the bay, thereby slowing or potentially stopping the project.
And Naess, executive vice president of commercial for Nordic, said that’s been the primary tactic for opponents of the project all along.
“‘Delay till they go away,’” she said. “But we’re in it for the long run.”
The lawsuits are based on a 1946 land-sale agreement that is the last — and best — hope for opponents who want to stop the project. At dispute is who owns the sliver of intertidal zone where Nordic wants to bury its intake and outfall pipes. Nordic has entered into a lease agreement with Janet and Richard Eckrote, who maintain they own the mudflat next to their property.
But neighbors Jeffrey R. Mabee and Judith B. Grace also claim ownership of the mudflat — and they staunchly oppose Nordic’s plans to build on the site.
Ultimately, a judge will decide who owns the contested intertidal ground.
In lawsuits filed in both Waldo County Superior Court and U.S. District Court, Mabee and Grace state that the 1946 deed from Harriet L. Hartley to Fred R. Poor, Janet Eckrote’s grandfather, clearly shows that Hartley retained the intertidal land for herself.
That deed also includes a covenant that would impose limits on the use of the parcel, specifying that it was to be used for residential purposes only and no business for profit was to be conducted there unless agreed to by Hartley or her heirs. Over the course of the lawsuit, Nordic hired a genealogist and a private investigator to find the heirs of Harriet L. Hartley, and has obtained release deeds from them.
Attorneys for Mabee, Grace and the Friends of the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area refused to comment to the Bangor Daily News about the cases.
But Sidney Block, president of the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, a nonprofit which opposes the project, wrote last week in the group’s newsletter, “Neap Tide News,” about the importance of the lawsuits.
“Under current political and corporate economic pressures, there is no longer any realistic hope that [the] regulatory agencies will deny Nordic the necessary permits they need,” he wrote. “It seems to be coming down to this: defending the future of Penobscot Bay depends on stopping Nordic in the courts.”
Nordic has reached out to Mabee and Grace to see if they would be willing to pursue mediation, Naess said.
“It’s moving pretty quickly now,” she said of the Waldo County Superior Court lawsuit. “I think everyone is eager to have it solved as soon as possible.”
Regulators put to the test
While the judge will ultimately decide the fate of the project due to the lawsuits, that isn’t the only hurdle. The strength and fervor of the opposition has resulted in intense scrutiny of the project, and for a full week last winter, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection held public hearings in Belfast.
According to Sean Mahoney, director of Conservation Law Foundation Maine, the scrutiny has had two effects: it’s slowed the permitting process down, and afforded the public every opportunity to weigh in on concerns.
“This is not even close to a rubber stamp,” he said. “I think what you don’t want is for the first-of-its-kind project to not be as wholly evaluated, with the best available information, as possible,” he said. “I do think it’s important to get this land-based aquaculture right. Because if it works, it has real promise.”
Some locals, including Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders, are ready for the process to move forward.
“Let’s go. We’re ready,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for 2 1/2 years.”
The mayor said he likes the idea of the land-based fish farm, the people who are in charge of it and the increase in property tax revenue that would come from such a large capital investment.
It’s difficult to be precise about the figure, city officials say, because a significant increase in property taxes would also decrease the amount of money that Belfast receives in state aid.
But using raw figures and current tax rates, a $500 million investment would potentially generate about $11.5 million in property taxes. In comparison, that is nearly double the $6 million raised by property taxpayers in Belfast each year to fund the municipal budget.
“I do think it’s worth waiting for,” Sanders said of the fish farm. “It’s that important to the future of the town.”
He pointed out that it’s been a very different situation just 20 miles away in Bucksport. That’s where Maine-based Whole Oceans announced in early 2018 its plans to build a land-based fish farm on the site of the former Verso Paper mill.
It’s difficult to compare the two projects because they’re sited in very different environments. Still, Whole Oceans has yet to start construction, but received all its permits by the end of last year. And the Bucksport Planning Board voted to permit the Whole Oceans project after just one meeting. Compare that with Belfast, where planning board members have debated Nordic Aquafarms’ application for more than a year. They’re likely to make a final decision later this fall.
Belfast resident Andy Stevenson, secretary for the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, recognizes that state officials have invested time into the regulatory process. But he’s not convinced they’ve done much to improve the project.
“The process has revealed, to me, that our regulatory agencies are understaffed and underbudgeted, to begin with,” said Stevenson, who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the 1970s. “Based on my own experience, if you’re understaffed, you walk through the process, because that’s your job, and you try to make sure everything is done to the extent that you feel possible, whether or not you feel that more could have been done.”
Other opponents have gone farther, saying that regulators have mixed politics with science.
“Clearly the need for objectivity in a very divisive permit application is being tainted by considerable subjectivity,” John Krueger, a director of Upstream Watch, a nonprofit that opposes the project, wrote recently in the Republican Journal. “The most offensive part is that a large corporation has come to Maine and persuaded our elected politicians, and the board that is supposed to protect our environment, to put the corporation’s interests above our regulatory standards.”
For Mahoney, of Conservation Law Foundation Maine, it’s not surprising to see how the proposed fish farm has been put to the test.
“Change is hard, and change in Maine is hard, period,” he said. “This project is a good example of the kind of push and pull between building a new economy and balancing it with local expectations.”
Still, for him, the experience of Nordic Aquafarms shows that the state’s regulatory agencies are stepping up to the plate.
“This project is one of those cases where you have a really active, passionate group of people who are raising lots of issues,” Mahoney said. “And you have an agency that deserves credit for working through all the issues that were raised. It’s not uncommon for agencies and boards to give those types of arguments the back of the hand, and just move on. I think this board, and this Department of Environmental Protection, has not done that.”