Proposed salmon farm is moving slowly forward

By Michael Hurley | Oct 01, 2020

Nordic Aquafarms' proposed salmon farm is moving slowly and inexorably forward. The state of the project is in the eye of the beholder. To proponents, the experience has been excruciatingly slow and they wonder “Why, oh why, is it taking so long?” To the opponents, it seems no matter how hard they fight against it, the project looms inexorably larger and larger, closer and closer. Which one is the truth? Both have a point.

The reason the project's permitting isn’t going fast and the reason it is proceeding slowly are the same. The Nordic Aquafarms proposal is, very simply, a really big deal. From the beginning every elected official, including all past mayors and Belfast City Council members, have supported the project. An enormously important project such as this comes along nearly never. A big, complex project takes time to review and go through the entire process.

While there has been a great deal of support, there has also been passionate opposition. There are a lot of eyes on this project, and when you mix the neighbors, outside groups, ardent opposition, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maine Bureau of Environmental Protection, the city of Belfast, the Belfast Planning Board and more, it naturally follows that time will pass as t's are crossed and i's are dotted. The constant threat of legal action is ensuring that everyone involved is carefully parsing their words, thoughts, permit language, hearings and actions.

It may appear to be glacial, but the movement toward permits is real. The BEP, the Army Corps and the city Planning Board are nearing completion of their work, which will include a great deal of required testing and guarantees and proofs prior to construction. There are still legal issues to be determined, particularly regarding the disputed right to access to Penobscot Bay. All of these final issues are to be determined by the applicants, lawyers and scientists, and the details are at times mind-numbing and eyeball-rolling.

Judging the facts is for professionals and experts. The project is closing in on the end game. The public wants simple answers, but the facts are complex. The bottom line is that permits will be issued, but Nordic Aquafarms will still have technical and legal hurdles to cross.

As the end game draws near, opining on the process continues apace. Let’s go back to the beginning. The first issue was whether the city of Belfast could rezone permitted uses on land the Belfast Water District owns. The opposition said no. The courts said yes. Right from the start, Nordic Aquafarms and the city of Belfast were cast as corrupt liars and “on the take.”

Who says this stuff, who are the people who make these claims? A changing cast of characters: a few neighbors, some dedicated locals, many from near or far out of town, an organization or two with undisclosed funding or members, passionate letter writers, an amalgam, if you will. Together they judge the entire process as a corrupt fix and dispute all findings. Nothing will do except that their point of view should prevail and win out. If that were to happen, you could be certain the boards and departments and politicians, etc., would be lauded as prescient heroes.

As it is, the city's Planning Office and the City Council are said to be blind and in Nordic's pocket. The Belfast citizens who failed to vote in a single opposition candidate over two elections must be gullible. The Belfast Planning Board’s work is not yet finished, but there is no doubt that the endless hours they put in as volunteers and the careful permits they may issue will be dismissed out of hand. The Board of Environmental Protection has issued draft permits for air, water, and land, and for its many months of patient review it is now being attacked as thoroughly corrupt.

The over-hyped and nearly nonexistent mercury the Army Corps of Engineers is getting ready to permit will no doubt lead to further ad hominem attacks on its staff's character and capability. The parade of self-appointed, chest-beating experts will continue to claim all kinds of wrongdoing, mistakes, miscalculations; will admonish and pass judgment left and right. But fewer and fewer are listening.

It is not up to any one person or organization to refute point-by-point the claims of the rotating cast of opposition. All of the process has been deliberate and has taken nearly two years. Elected officials spoke. The people of Belfast have spoken repeatedly. The courts spoke. Scientists are on the job. Boards and agencies are speaking. Courts, judges, and appeals boards still have their work ahead of them. It’s not over yet. There’s still a lot of shouting and loud claims with many hoops still to leap through and resolve, but the real situation is that Nordic Aquafarms is slowly, painfully, excruciatingly making its way forward.

MIchael "Mike" Hurley is a Belfast city councilor and former mayor.

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