A computer rendering of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms site in Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

Opponents of Belfast’s proposed large land-based salmon farm and the company trying to build it have started the New Year with another round of controversy.

The newest conflict stems from the proposed location of Nordic Aquafarms’ pipeline, which would bring water from Penobscot Bay to the salmon farm, located near the Little River, and discharge treated wastewater from the plant. Nordic officials said they recently adjusted the path of the pipeline to fall within the coastal land rights zone of the property over which the company has negotiated an easement.

“This gets us through the littoral zone and gets us into Maine state waters,” Ed Cotter, project director at Nordic Aquafarms, said Thursday. “We had to bend the pipe, and it also had some other engineering challenges, but we looked at it and are satisfied we can overcome those.”

Those opposed to the project do not believe that the siting of the pipeline is anything near as simple — or as settled. Kim Ervin Tucker, an attorney for the Maine Lobstering Union and Upstream Watch, a new Belfast-based group that is fighting the salmon farm, has a different view.

She recently filed a motion asking the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Board of Environmental Protection and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to dismiss the waste discharge permit application submitted by Nordic Aquafarms.

Action on that motion has yet to be taken. However, her other requests to require the Board of Environmental Protection to assume jurisdiction of the Nordic application processing, to grant Upstream Watch and the Maine Lobstering Union intervenor status, and to require DEP to hold a public hearing for the waste discharge license were found at the end of December to not have merit by acting Commissioner Melanie Loyzim.

Appeal rejected

According to Brian Kavanah, director for the Maine DEP’s Division of Water Quality Management, the Board of Environmental Protection only assumes jurisdiction over projects that are of statewide significance.

To qualify, a project would need to meet three of four criteria — that it will have an environmental or economic impact in more than one municipality, territory or county; that it involves an activity not previously permitted or licensed in the state; that it is likely to come under significant public scrutiny; and that it is located in more than one municipality, territory or county.

This one didn’t do that, Kavanah said.

Loyzim found that the project is located solely in Belfast, not partially in Northport, as the opponents maintain. It also involves an activity that has previously been permitted in Maine.

Opponents have stressed the major scale of the project, emphasizing its size and impact. But Kavanah said that it is not all that large, compared to other wastewater dischargers.

Those include municipal waste and large industrial dischargers such as paper mills, which can release as much as 20 million to 30 million gallons of treated water per day. Nordic’s permit application specifies that it will discharge up to 7.7 million gallons of treated water a day.

Kavanah also emphasized the fact that if it is permitted and built, the land-based fish farm will need to follow the same rules as the other wastewater dischargers.

“The process we use to license, whether it’s a small discharger or a large one, it’s the same,” he said. “The rules are the same. The laws are the same. There are about 400 licensed dischargers in the state. They’re all regulated in the same fashion. We have very good water quality in the state. It’s been a tremendous success. In the bad old days, in the ‘60s, in the ‘70s, things looked like open sewers. We’re not there, and we’re never going to be there again. It’s just not going to happen.”

Opponents fight on

Still, Ervin Tucker and other opponents have not let the state’s decisions hold them back. They maintain that Nordic Aquafarms has not demonstrated it has the “right, title and interest,” or legal standing to apply for either a wastewater permit or for the submerged lands lease necessary to construct the water intake and discharge pipes in the intertidal and littoral zones.

“Maine is unique. In most states, the sovereign owns up to the mean high water mark. In most states, private parties do not own the intertidal zone. Most land where the intertidal zone is is considered the state’s land,” the attorney said. “In Maine, that is privately owned. You can use other people’s intertidal zone land for fishing, fowling and navigation. You cannot put an industrial pipeline across someone else’s intertidal land without their permission.”

But according to Cotter and Marianne Naess, the company’s director of operations, that’s not what Nordic is proposing to do. They are preparing a response to Ervin Tucker’s motion to dismiss, and continuing to ready their next local and federal permit applications for the project.

The constant opposition is frustrating, they said, but isn’t deterring them from moving forward.

“It’s quite discouraging. The opposition are looking for anything to stop the project,” she said. “We’re not giving up. It’s a good project. Local people are apologizing to us [for the opponents]. They’re embarrassed. We do have a lot of support, but it seems like the opponents are doing everything they can. They’re looking for procedural mistakes or anything like that to stop the project.”

Project opponent Paul Bernacki said as much recently. The 65-year-old owner of Wayback Farm in Belmont said he has no plans to give up the fight. He said he believes that Nordic Aquafarms will be a “concentrated animal feeding operation,” and that the wastewater that comes from it will end up in “our shallow little bay.”

“This project is an imposition of the kind you read about somewhere else,” he said. “I’m going to devote however much time in the next year necessary to drive these people away. I don’t care. I’m going to go full time.”