Nordic Aquafarms got an uncharacteristically warm welcome in Belfast as supporters of the company's proposed $500 million land-based salmon farm turned out for the latest in a run of public meetings that has been defined, so far, by vocal opponents.

The March 26 event at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people. Representatives of Nordic Aquafarms and partner companies presented information from its Site Location of Development Act and Natural Resources Protection Act permit applications, as well as new details related to the company's applications for a key Department of Environmental Protection wastewater permit.

At similar events over the past year, many of which were held in the same room as Tuesday night's meeting, opponents have barraged company representatives with pointed questions and accusations, while open supporters — a group that Nordic has characterized as a silent majority — have been almost entirely absent.

That changed on Tuesday, as the number of public comments of support were equal to those openly against the project for the first time since the company announced its plans more than a year ago.

"I am so excited about you coming to Belfast and making Belfast a better place," Diane Braybrook, a Belfast resident, said. She compared Nordic Aquafarms to Front Street Shipyard, and said she didn't recall that project being put under a microscope as some have done with the fish farm.

Some of the supporters in attendance Tuesday night organized through a new Facebook group "The Fish are Okay!," which is billed as "not a 'Nordic or Bust' effort" but an "'I think the city is doing a decent job pursuing this option and I don't support any effort to stop it cold at this point.' effort."

Trudy Miller of Northport told Nordic representatives that the salmon farm has prompted public discussions about whom to trust.

"Right now, I trust Nordic Aquafarms," she said. "If you don't know what you're doing, you're going to lose a buttload of money. I don't know why that's not obvious to people."

Project representatives showed new drawings of the proposed layout of nine buildings on the site, including two large production buildings in a narrow V-formation, straddling a smolt building, a central utility plant, and on the surrounding grounds an oxygen generation building, offices, a wastewater treatment plant and a gatehouse. An information center would be housed in a former pump house that is currently home to Belfast Water District.

In addition to bird's eye views, project representatives showed new photo illustrations of the facility from ground level at locations along Route 1, Perkins Road and Little River Trail. Mark Johnson of SMRT, the company that conducted the required view study, said there would be no adverse effects on views.

The facility, as proposed, would be built in three phases with an investment of $150 million for the first phase and an estimated $500 million by the end of the final phase.

Critics have pointed out that Nordic has never built a facility this large. But on Tuesday, company president Erik Heim said that criticism might be overblown. It would be the company's largest fish farm, he said, but he likened it to building a number of facilities of a size similar to those the company has already built.

In effect, the large production buildings would be composed of several smaller ones.

"This is all about standardizing and replicating designs and improving them every time," Heim said. "Everything is modular. We're just multiplying the same thing over again."

Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting, a firm that has worked extensively with Nordic on the Belfast proposal, talked about the route and legality of two large pipes that would draw water from Penobscot Bay into the facility and a third pipe that would discharge treated wastewater back into the bay.

Ransom showed a slide depicting an overview of the coast with the final route along with four routes that were considered but ruled out. One of the rejected routes would have exited the property into Little River and followed the estuary into the bay. Another would have gone uphill to Tozier Street before heading out into the bay, which Ransom said would have required a new pumping station.

In a slight change from the Z-shaped route pictured in Nordic's initial application to DEP — a design that one outspoken opponent dubbed "the twisted sister" — the final route smoothed out the kinks into a gentle S-curve.

Notably, Ransom said the company has right, title and interest to the intertidal land under the final proposed pipe route.

Opponents have accused Nordic of fudging its documentation in permit applications to the Bureau of Parks and Lands and DEP. Earlier this year, DEP officials took that criticism to heart and demanded more documentation, which Ransom said would appear in Nordic's final submission to the department, which she anticipated would be in a couple of weeks.

On freshwater usage — another contentious aspect of the project — Michael Mobile, a groundwater hydrologist with McDonald Morrissey Associates, presented the results of studies that modeled the possible effects of Nordic's freshwater wells on existing wells in the area. Mobile said the sophisticated computer modeling concluded that the added draw would not compromise local wells.

An ordinance recently adopted by the city for significant groundwater wells would require Nordic Aquafarms to solve any water problems at neighboring properties by deepening wells or connecting the homes or businesses to city water.

A public question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting produced some of the most unreservedly positive comments about the salmon farm since it was announced more than a year ago.

Others were more skeptical on the matter of trust. Sid Block of Northport said residents and regulators have had to take Nordic's word that it has data to back up various claims. He compared the situation to the Federal Aviation Administration's reliance on information from Boeing about the safety of its 737 Max planes. Block added that he wasn't accusing Nordic of endangering human lives.

Jamilla Levasseur of Waldo asked why Nordic incorporated in Delaware and not Maine. Heim said it would not deprive Maine of any tax revenue. A representative from Maine Revenue Service contacted by The Republican Journal confirmed that statement. Later in the meeting a member of the public said companies routinely incorporate in Delaware, and investors often demand it, because the state's Court of Chancery is able to quickly resolve business disputes.

While much of the opposition to Nordic Aquafarms has come from local environmentalists, and Sierra Club of Maine recently came out against the project, recirculating aquaculture is supported by the well-respected Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, and Nordic Aquafarms' proposal has garnered letters of support from the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Conservation Law Foundation and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

On Tuesday, Heim reiterated his belief that the Belfast facility would be a step in the right direction for the environment. The salmon farm will have a smaller carbon footprint than much of the current salmon industry, he said, because the fish will be produced closer to markets. Additionally, Nordic is planning to discharge cleaner wastewater than is required by law.

"I think we're setting a new standard in the industry," he said. "When these farms get bigger, they need to get cleaner."

After the event, Marianne Naess, commercial director for Nordic Aquafarms, said she was glad to see a mix of opinions in the public comments.

"The media has been focused a lot on the opposition, but there are a lot of people who support it," she said. "I felt this was a fair representation of the community. This is the way these meetings should be."

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