Opponents of a proposed land-based salmon farm, along with some of the undecided and curious, paired up at a June 28 meeting at Belfast Free Library to share their thoughts. After a minute, Jim Merkel, a sustainability advocate who was leading the exercise, called on attendees to summarize in a few words what they heard.

The answers came fast.

"Bethany said it's anti-environmental," "Ellie said it was the worst thing that's happened," "Paul is searching for benefits," "My partner says she feels betrayed," "I heard it brings jobs," "Eric said it reminds me of a feedlot," "Katie said she feels disillusioned about the people who are supposed to represent us," "Cynthia said it looks like smoke and mirrors."

All were referring to a proposal by Nordic Aquafarms to build a land-based aquaculture facility in Belfast to produce Atlantic salmon for markets in the Northeast United States. Thursday's meeting was organized by Local Citizens for Smart Growth, a community group formed in March that has met every two weeks to share information and concerns about the fish farm.

Merkel, who has spoken out against the salmon farm at several public meetings to date, echoed concerns voiced by other opponents of the project that the public process hasn't allowed for a proper account of citizen concerns.

"When will we have our chance?" he said.

At public meetings held by Nordic Aquafarms, opponents, often emotional in the moment, have struggled to fit their arguments in the short question-and-answer format. The same could be said of the three minutes given to individual public comments at City Council meetings.

Frustration has led opponents to accuse city officials of working on behalf of Nordic Aquafarms, rigging the system against public participation and minimizing serious public concerns while rolling out a red carpet for a business that might not have the city's long-term interests in mind.

In less-heated moments, opponents repeatedly point to a lack of real information. While Nordic Aquafarms has produced volumes of documents about the project, the project is still under development and some worry that, by the time the actual plans are in hand, it will be too late.

Paul Bernacki, a farmer who lives in Belmont, described a deep dive into information published by Nordic Aquafarms during which he realized that the company could talk about filtering large amounts of phosphorus from its wastewater because phosphorus binds to solids. Nitrogen, on the other hand, dissolves in water, he said. As a result, large amounts of the nutrient could be expelled into the bay, potentially causing algae blooms.

Local environmental activist Ron Huber, one of two featured speakers June 28, shared practical steps that concerned citizens can take when a big project drops in their neighborhood. Huber said local and state regulators often have the best interests of the environment in mind but can be moved by political pressures from political appointees in higher levels of government.

"They're the ones you have to protect," he said.

He said the challenge before salmon farm opponents would be to convince federal regulators that the project needs an environmental impact statement.

He listed names of officials who would be in charge of permitting the project and encouraged attendees to get to know them and any others involved with the project at all levels. He urged them to pressure large environmental groups to get involved before the permitting process starts. Huber said this would require showing them that the project has significance beyond Belfast.

Author Paul Molyneaux spoke to the group about the larger history of the fishing industry on the world's fisheries. Molyneaux, a former fisherman who splits time between Maine and Mexico and has traveled widely, said new technology is repeatedly pitched as a cure for the devastation wrought by the old one, and called aquaculture "the next technological fix."

"They've got the GMO fish now," he said. "They can't grow them in the open ocean, and suddenly there's a big push for land-based fish farms. I mean, put that together."

Profits have come from "ignoring costs" to the environment, he said. Molyneaux said depending upon how fast the local freshwater aquifer replenishes itself, allowing Nordic Aquafarms in could amount to "mining your aquifer to flush the toilet for the salmon farm." A better alternative, he said, would be to work toward restoring the natural fishery.

An audience member noted that Nordic Aquafarms had hired a professional hydrologist who said the well on the property wouldn't deplete the freshwater supply.

Molyneaux scoffed.

"I bet they did," he said, and cited another "expert" prediction that had been inaccurate, to the detriment of fisheries.

"They're not always wrong," the man said.

Another audience member said a flyer being distributed at the meeting was deceptive because it said the new facility would lead to an increase in taxes.

"I would expect your taxes to go down, not up," he said.

"I wouldn't argue about that stuff," Molyneaux said. "People will believe what they're going to believe, often regarding what sort of identity group they're with. But the pattern is that these companies come in, they exploit communities, they use up resources, and when the resources are gone, they're gone. And that is the pattern I've seen the world over."

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