A proposed $150 million salmon farm to be built by Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast will only happen if there is enough fresh water and the Norwegian developer behind the project can get the appropriate federal, state and local permits, company representatives said this week.

Against the backdrop of that caveat, representatives held a public information meeting at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center to share plans for the facility and field questions from residents and community members, who were happy to kick the tires and look under the hood of the new development.

Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim said he wants to be as transparent as possible about the project, but cautioned that the development is not going to happen overnight and details — including the type of fish food, or specific uses of the waste materials — would be settled later in the process.

Heim laid out a timeline for the land-based aquaculture facility. Construction is expected to start in 2019. The initial phase will involve a $150 million investment. When the facility is completed in the next two years, it will employ 60 people at high-skill jobs. Operations would begin in 2020.

Later phases would result in a full end-to-end operation — from hatcheries to fish processing — and will bring the total investment to between $450 million and $500 million with a total of 120 to 140 jobs that would be filled through a combination of national and international searches and local openings.

The company recently negotiated deals with the city, Belfast Water District and one private landowner to acquire 40 acres on Route 1 next to Little River. Heim said the rest of this year would be spent clarifying the water capacity of the Route 1 property and securing permits, on which the development ultimately will sink or swim.

In the finished facility, Heim said the salmon would be separated from the bay by roughly 1,000 feet of dry land. Brackish water would be drawn from Belfast Bay into the facility and discharged back into the bay after use, but Heim noted that several stages of processing stood in the way of any fish escaping through the pipes into local waterways.

Heim tag-teamed with Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting. The environmental consulting firm helped Nordic Aquafarms choose Belfast from an East Coast search area that Ransom said initially stretched from Washington, D.C., to the U.S.-Canada border.

Belfast was chosen, she said, in part because the bay water is cleaner than other sites along the coast, and the cold water here is well-suited to raising salmon. The facility additionally would use a significant amount of fresh water. The company has signed an agreement with Belfast Water District to buy at least 100 million gallons of municipal water per year with a provision to buy as much as 260 million gallons per year.

Water District Superintendent Keith Pooler said the aquifer has the capacity. Starting in the late 1960s and through the next decade when the city was home to two poultry plants and one sardine plant, the water district pumped 500 million gallons per year from the aquifer. More recently the average has hovered around 200 million gallons per year, with at least 300 million gallons per year of capacity unused.

Ransom said an assessment of local freshwater capacity being done now includes testing for groundwater on the Route 1 property.

Heim said 2018 would be "all about due diligence, permitting and some engineering." Construction would start in 2019. Factoring in the 25 months that it takes to raise an egg into an eight-pound salmon, fish would not leave the facility for markets in the Northeast U.S. until 2021.

"So, it's a long journey," he said.

Following are excerpts from a public question and answer session at the Feb. 21 event:

How will Little River Trail be affected by having a new salmon farm next door?

Several residents expressed concerns about continued access to Little River Trail, a hiking trail that runs next to the land acquired for the fish farm. Within several land deals completed earlier this month, a strip along either bank of Little River that includes the trail on the north bank will be deeded to the city. However, some attendees at the Feb. 21 meeting wanted assurances of a tree buffer between the trail and the Nordic Aquafarms facility. Ransom said trees and visual buffers would factor into the permitting process for the facility. She added that the company is "very aware" that the trail is important to the community.

"We will be doing everything we can to make sure that's preserved," she said.

Will antibiotics be used to treat the water against bacteria?

Heim said antibiotics are not used in Norway. As at other Nordic Aquafarms facilities, ultraviolet light would be used to treat the water used in Belfast against bacterial growth.

What about fungal growth? Will the fish be treated for that?

Heim said fungal growth tends to happen in fresh water. It drops off as the water salinity increases, he said, adding that the Belfast facility would use brackish water.

How much fresh water will the facility use, and is the city's drinking water supply at risk?

Ransom said the company is currently doing an assessment of the water supply on the property to determine if it is sustainable. Attendees asked what "sustainable" meant — for the business or for everyone? — and how the freshwater consumption of the fish farm would compare to the draw of a water extraction plant like the one operated by Poland Spring in Alfred.

Ransom said it would be far less than a water bottling plant, and the project wouldn't be undertaken if it would potentially threaten the local water supply. "For this to succeed, we would have to demonstrate that what I can pump today won't be different than what I can pump in 30 years," she said.

How much noise will come from the facility?

In response to this question from a neighbor of the proposed fish farm site, Heim showed a slide with an aerial view of a Nordic Aquafarms facility in Norway surrounded by houses. He said the company uses low-noise fans that cannot be heard from 150 feet away.

What will be done with waste from the fish farm?

Heim said the sludge filtered from the wastewater would probably be sold. Treated sewer sludge is often used as a soil additive in farming. The treated water would be discharged into the bay. Heim said this water would not contain pollutants so much as it would lack nutrients. The goal, he said, would be to pump it to a location with high current flow that would disperse it. That location, he said, could be as far as a mile and a half from shore, reached by pipe laid in a tunnel below the seafloor.

"In other facilities, you really see no ecological footprint from it, locally," he said.

Fish guts and other remnants of the rough processing done at the fish farm would be compacted, frozen and sold for a variety of potential uses, including fish oil supplements, animal feed and fertilizer.

Where will the eggs come from?

Heim said that has been a popular question. Nordic Aquafarms hasn't decided yet, he said. He offered that some smaller land-based U.S. salmon farms use eggs from Iceland.

Has this kind of fish farm been done successfully before?

Nordic Aquafarms has done this type of fish farming in Europe, Heim said, adding that other companies have done it in the U.S., though on a smaller scale than what is proposed for Belfast. Heim said this type of land-based fish farming on the scale proposed for Belfast has not been done before. He described the Belfast facility as on track to be one of the two largest in the world; the other is under development in Florida.

Would Phase 1 alone be sustainable?

Heim said the project would be undertaken with the expectation of completing all three phases. He appeared to be saying that Nordic Aquafarms wouldn't start the project without knowing that it could be followed through to a full build-out of the facility.

Would you consider adding a fish ladder to Little River Dam?

Ransom said the principals hadn't talked about that yet, but it's something they would consider during a study of the structural integrity of the dam. That study is to be jointly funded by Nordic Aquafarms and the city of Belfast.

Will the salmon produced in Belfast be healthy and affordable?

Attendees asked about types of fish food and organic certification. Heim said a decision on the type of food is still a couple years away, but he said the company is looking for products that are both good for the fish and easy to remove from wastewater. He said he's still learning about the "jungle of certifications" for products sold in the U.S. as "organic" or containing no GMOs. He described a number of certifications the company's products are subject to in Europe.

Heim noted that salmon tends to command a premium, but he hoped to make an affordable product. He noted that, by being close to markets in the Northeastern U.S., Nordic Aquafarms would not have to factor air freight into its own costs.

Will the company commit to hiring local workers, paying them livable wages and providing health insurance?

This question, which drew a round of applause from the crowd, came from Chris Tucker, representing Laborers International Union. Heim described some of the company's practices in Norway, which include benefits like extended maternity leave. Nordic Aquafarms would be investing to train workers and would have an interest in keeping them, he said.

"We want only full-time people and we want them to stay with us," he said. "And to do that, we need them to be happy."

What effect will this have on other city infrastructure (roads and wastewater)?

Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall headed off several concerns about increased volume on city systems, including traffic on local roads and the municipal wastewater treatment system. Marshall cited several local employers, including nearby Mathews Bros. and Ducktrap River of Maine, that have significantly more workers than the 60 anticipated at Nordic Aquafarms. In addition, Nordic Aquafarms estimates 10 to 12 trucks coming or going from the facility per day.

With regard to wastewater, Marshall said most of the water used to raise the salmon would be treated and pumped out to sea, leaving only what was generated by employees. He estimated that would be about the equivalent of three single-family homes.

Watch a video of the full meeting, here.

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