Three speakers with contradictory views of the proposal to build a land-based salmon farm in Belfast did agree on two things — more questions need to be answered about the project and none of them would drink water expelled from the facility into the bay.

The speakers — representing a pro-Nordic viewpoint, neutral position and opponents — spoke to a packed room at Camden Public Library Feb. 21 during an event hosted by Midcoast Audubon Society.

Belfast resident Andrew Stevenson, who is retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, framed his answers from “the con” perspective. Representing neutral parties was Kathleen Thornton, who lives in the Midcoast and works at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center — speaking for herself, not her employer, she said. Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders spoke in favor of the project. Each was allowed a four-minute introduction, followed by alternating answers to four predetermined questions.

“I started out pretty optimistic and impressed,” Stevenson said during his introduction. However, he said, upon digging into the project, he found more and more questions. “There’s a lot out there (regulatory agencies and city officials) they need to know. They need better answers.”

Thornton began by stating she doesn’t know much about salmon farming but she does know a lot about water quality.

“I can see positives and negatives,” she said. “We have a lot of problems to solve and these solutions aren’t perfect.”

Sanders, after noting he does not consume fish, said he favors the project mainly for its economic benefits to the city and its taxpayers.

“I think all of the attention paid to this is not a bad thing,” he said.

The first question asked each speaker to address possible benefits Nordic Aquafarms could bring to the community.

Sanders spoke first, stressing the economic benefits such as reduced taxes and funding for more services, as well as projected local jobs.

“We can use every tax dollar we can get,” he said.

The global impact of food production and consumption also needs to be considered, Sanders noted, as well as drawing younger people back to the state with jobs. A longtime employee of MBNA and Bank of America, Sanders said he is proud to work for a large corporation and asked why expectations for Nordic should be any different.

Thornton agreed that food production and consumption are factors to consider.

“Fish farming is something in our future,” she said, adding she would not want to sacrifice the environment for jobs. Looking at applications filed by Nordic, Thornton said it appears the impact on water quality would be minimal. “We should not go backwards or give up the progress we’ve made.”

She said she would rather consume locally raised salmon than those grown in South America with unknown chemicals and processes, and concurred there would probably be economic benefits.

Stevenson focused on the community discussions as a positive to come from the sometimes heated exchanges between Nordic officials and the public and said he, too, can see economic benefits.

“Really, it’s the discussion to me that’s been the largest benefit,” he said. “We can’t make these decisions without open, honest communication.”

Speaking to possible drawbacks, Stevenson cited “the level of knowledge” of those reviewing applications for both Nordic and the Whole Oceans proposal in Bucksport, saying that level is too low. No one party is to blame for the lack of knowledge, he said. Stevenson also compared Nordic’s approach — meeting with city councilors and the Water District in executive session before announcing the project — with Whole Oceans. After entering comment into the record in Bucksport, Stevenson said he was invited by Whole Oceans’ CEO to a sit-down meeting to talk about his concerns.

“I don’t think that Nordic has reached out to opponents,” he said, casting some of the blame on the company’s global reach and Norwegian funding sources.

In addition, he said, the regulatory process needs to be strengthened and more specific information provided by Nordic.

Thornton focused her drawback arguments around water quality. She showed slides of studies included in Nordic’s applications that include numbers higher than DEP averages.

“You can’t dilute something lower than the existing level,” she said, adding more monitoring of nutrients in the bay is needed. Thornton said salmon net-pen farms — those in the ocean — no longer use antibiotics and said she is more concerned about nutrient content being released into Penobscot Bay than specific chemicals.

Sanders said he considers potential failure of the company to be the biggest drawback. In addition, the siting of the structure will change the nature of Little River Trail, he said.

“The trail would not be as meaningful as it is today,” Sanders said.

As far as topics needing more public attention, Sanders pointed to the DEP permitting process. He offered several pieces of information he said were new to him: the DEP sets its safe discharge levels based on local conditions; the current permitting process applies only to the first phase of development; and Nordic will not know when DEP is monitoring discharge from the facility.

Thornton returned to water quality as an issue that needs more public attention. She encouraged anyone interesting in helping monitor the bay to reach out to Maine Coastal Observing Alliance.

“I believe we definitely need more monitoring,” Thornton said, as well as an action plan if nutrient levels become too high.

Stevenson said he wants to know more about the feed composition, as well as how it circulates through Nordic’s closed system before being discharged. The amount of discharge expected to be released into the bay also requires more study, he said, as does bay circulation.

Asked what people should think about most going forward, Stevenson said, he hopes, “WWBB. What would be better?” for the area than a land-based salmon farm. He spoke of a series of enterprises and perhaps making use of “Green Wave” technology to create layers of growth areas for marine plants and life.

“There’s a lot out there Mother Nature has to share,” he said. “Learn as much as you can.”

Thornton said, “I think we all need to think about where we get our food.” She also encouraged people to remain involved in the process.

Sanders said people should look to the future and what Belfast might be known for 20, 30 or 40 years down the road.

“This is big and splashy” business, Sanders said, that could keep Belfast unique. He said it is important to change the perception that the city is composed of old, rich people and empty houses — a description provided by a middle school student. He said there needs to be more monitoring and questions answered.

"Why the hell would I not agree with that?" Sanders asked.

A few questions about the aquifer, impact on bird food sources and habitat and water temperature changes were asked and answered by the panelists, but one question showed all in agreement: Is the outfall water something you would drink?

"I wouldn't drink it," Sanders said, adding he also does not swim in the ocean for fear of sharks.

Thornton said she thinks it will be bacteria and virus-free because of UV filters and said there shouldn't be any particles, "but I wouldn't drink it."

"Would I drink it? No," Stevenson said. He said of more concern should be the "scent cloud" discharged into the bay, which could impact marine life.

The last audience question asked how the divided community can recover. Stevenson said a downside of the robust discussion has been rancor.

"We need to dial that down," he said.

Sanders agreed and said he's most interested in a collaboration between the city, Nordic and opponents as a way forward.


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