Company hosts Q&A session

Supporters, critics seek answers from Nordic officials

By Stephanie Grinnell | Nov 29, 2018
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim answers a question Nov. 28 during an informal Q&A hosted by the company.

Belfast — In a departure from the norm, several people voiced support for the proposed Nordic Aquafarms project during an information session Wednesday at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast. But the overall tone of the session was one of suspicion, with many speakers asking questions about environmental impacts, sources of feed, chemicals involved in the operation and the company's commitment to area residents.

Five representatives of the company invited the public to ask questions about Nordic Aquafarms, which has purchased a large parcel of land near the Belfast-Northport line on the Little River.

Speaking in favor of the project, an Appleton man suggested the company consider moving the land-based salmon operation inland and said his town would welcome the tax relief of the large company with open arms. However, company officials noted salt water is needed and, to date, there is no reliable way to salinate fresh water.

A local small business owner simply stated he “can’t wait for you to get here.” A local lobsterman praised Nordic for “looking to the future” of the seafood industry and urged those opposed to the project to “Cut ‘em some slack.” He also objected to protesters outside the building, calling it “a disgrace.”

Those attending were greeted at the entrance by protesters with signs urging the company to “go home”; the group later moved inside to participate in the talks, displaying two large signs in the rear of the room.

Marianne Naess of Nordic Aquafarms noted the gathering was intended to be an informal question and answer session and said the company hoped to hear suggestions for ways to share information. That description of the meeting was later disputed, with Belfast resident Ethan Hughes referring to the meeting as a public relations effort solely controlled by Nordic staff.

“I want the kind of information that labels this a public relations event, not a community dialogue,” he said, later adding, “It’s not ping-pong between five employees who stand to gain a lot of money and people who live here. … This is our home.”

His words echoed one of the protest signs, which read “Vi bor her” (translation: “We live here”). Nordic CEO Erik Heim later addressed a question about his city of residence, how often he commutes and by what method. Heim said he lives in Portland, which is where the company hopes to establish its U.S. headquarters. He and Naess, his wife, spend half the week in Belfast and half in Portland at this time, driving the commute rather than taking a bus, plane or train, he said.

There were a few other questions not related to location and environmental or operational concerns, including one that asked if Nordic officials pressured Courier Publications to fire columnist Lawrence Reichard, who penned a series of opinion pieces critical of the company and was present at the session. Naess stated it was purely the newspaper’s decision and said Nordic made no threats of legal action.

She also offered an apology on behalf of the company to speakers who said they’d been labeled as part of a “small group from away protesting” as well as “fearful” in publicity, including advertisements, about the project.

Speaking about potential jobs the company could create, Naess said a total of 55 to 60 people, ranging from high school graduates to master’s degree-level, are expected to be hired. David Noyes of Nordic clarified that the education level of workers is not most important; he said competency is.

One woman said her biggest worry is losing the character of Belfast, which has become known for its small farms and businesses as well as its local food scene.

“Big corporations have ruined a lot of small towns,” she said. “And large towns.”

Heim acknowledged her view, adding, “There have been many corporations on this planet that could have done a better job.” He said the company is trying to be sensitive and part of the community but said, “The world needs both small scale and larger scale (food production).”

In response to a question about removing the Little River dam, Heim said while the company has an option to purchase it, the future of the dam “hasn’t been on our agenda so far.”

Belfast Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge gave a brief outline of what might happen to the tax rate in the city but cautioned he could not pinpoint exactly what the impact will be because nothing has been built or assessed.

Heim and Naess both spoke about involvement in the community and future generations, citing possible partnerships with school food programs and establishing an education center focused on the seafood industry. As well, both said, local people will be hired by the company as part of its “stable workforce.”

One resident questioned why the company is “not willing” to secure a bond, which could protect the city from major financial loses if Nordic Aquafarms fails. Noyes noted failure to comply with permits would results in $5,000 per-day fines from the state and said if the company were shut down, it would no longer be making money to pay those fines.

Reichard rattled off a series of calculations and said fines would be a drop in the bucket to such a large company. He said it’s “naive” for people to think that the state — “considering the political difficulty” — would shut down the business. Heim stated if Nordic were to close because of bankruptcy, he suspects the property would be considered a “tremendous opportunity” for another business at a low price, with infrastructure already in place.

Heim said the company’s goal is transparency, and said the city and company will probably come to an agreement about a qualified city official keeping an eye on the facility for compliance.

Questions about the environmental impact the company might have ranged from water quality concerns to its overall carbon footprint. Regarding chemicals and discharge into the bay, Naess and Heim emphasized the company’s philosophies.

“We have a commitment to ourselves,” Naess said. “It’s a great value for us to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Heim added, “Yes, it is in our best interest to avoid bad PR (public relations). … (There are) very strong self-imposed reasons for us to be compliant.”

Reichard questioned the smaller scales of existing projects in Norway and Denmark compared to the Belfast plans and asked if Nordic intended to lose money there because of the smaller operations, which Heim has said are not financially viable. Heim said the Norway aquafarm is twice the size of the Danish operation because of gradual up-sizing and “proof of concept” methods used there. In Belfast, he said, the plan is to begin smaller, with gradual expansions to the full build-out.

“It’s part of this industry developing,” he said.

One person questioned why Nordic did not consider the city’s established business park as a location instead of the scenic spot along Little River. Kittredge noted there are just two available lots, each 2-acre parcels, “so, much too small.”

“This site is pretty much the only one that met all criteria,” Heim added. He said properties all along the Maine coastline were considered before the company decided on Belfast. No Brownfields properties were considered, he said, because the company’s goal is to produce a “pure product” and Brownfields properties are contaminated.

At one point, a man in the audience stood up and said he wanted to speak on behalf of someone unable to find a voice — holding up a large jar of water, he said he was speaking for Little River.

Treatment of the discharge into the bay was discussed at length, with a number of questions about specific nutrients, chemicals and dispersal rates. Heim said as much nitrogen as current technology allows will be removed; he estimated 85 percent, which he said is the highest in the industry today.

Belfast resident Jim Merkel criticized the panel as a whole, stating because they are experts in their respective fields, it’s easy for panelists to make members of the public “look silly.” Heim responded that he’s spent a large amount of his time correcting misinformation about the project that’s circulating in the community.

“Somebody is making stories in this town and it’s not us,” Heim said. Merkel, too, denied spreading misinformation about the project.

Speaking about a list of chemicals included in permits, Carter Cyr of Nordic stated most are industry standard uses or cleaning products commonly available. Fish antibiotics and thousands of gallons of bleach are “part of the worst-case scenario,” he said.

One person urged the company to recycle the treated water.

“That water per gallon may be worth far more than your fish per pound,” the speaker said.

Noyes said mixed, recycled water would nullify biosecurity efforts. Asked what might happen in the event of an extended power outage, he said redundancies also are built in for power loss, adding the facility can’t go more than 5 minutes without power.

Cyr said solid waste will not be treated onsite, and negotiations are currently taking place with interested parties.

Heim said his company already is working to develop a new, sustainable feed for the salmon. Because completion of the facility is a couple of years out, he said, it does not make sense to specify what type of feed will be used. Heim said he hopes to be at the forefront of developing a new type of feed and urged pressure from the public on feed producers to consider other options because there are new ingredients — including farmed insects, algae, or local vegetables — developing on a larger scale. Still, Heim noted, “handsome margins” for feed in the discharge are included in permits submitted.

Nordic's Ed Cotter directed those with questions about the length of the discharge pipe to the permits on file, which he said include latitude and longitude locations that will not change. As well, there is detailed information about dispersion of the discharge in the permit application, Cyr added.

Mercury remains a concern of residents in the area, both disturbing it in the bay and exposing the salmon to it in the water brought into the facility. Heim said mercury testing has been done in the expected areas of the discharge and intake pipes. He said he is relying on expert advice telling him there is little mercury where work will be taking place in the bay.

Filtration will remove sea lice, a problem for wild and penned salmon, Noyes said.

Currently, 90 percent of seafood is imported into the United States, Heim said, so locating close to the source reduces the carbon footprint. Naess said it is expected the Belfast facility will serve the New England market. Asked about the numbers of trucks arriving and departing the facility each day, she responded the answer would be in the next permits submitted.

Those could be submitted before the end of the year, company officials said.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct spellings of Thomas Kittredge and Ed Cotter.

 

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Stephanie Grinnell
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Stephanie is editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. She previously served as editor of Camden Herald following its return in April 2012.

Stephanie also was editor of VillageSoup's Capital Weekly in Augusta and has nearly a decade of experience in the newspaper business ranging from southern and central Maine to Waldo County.

Outside the office, she enjoys reading, cooking and gardening.

Stephanie lives in Washington with her husband Jeff, four children, a dog named Chewbacca, a rabbit and chickens.

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