Computer renderings of Whole Oceans' indoor salmon farm, slated for construction at the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport. Credit: Courtesy of Whole Oceans

A Belfast resident has dropped her challenge to a state-issued permit that would allow a proposed $250 million indoor salmon farm in Bucksport to discharge its wastewater into the Penobscot River.

The appeal from Holly Faubel, the only one filed challenging the wastewater permit, was the most substantial objection yet to the salmon farm proposed at the former Verso Paper Mill site, where Portland-based Whole Oceans plans to build a land-based aquafarm to raise Atlantic salmon. The first phase of the project, which would be a $75 million investment, will create 50 jobs, the company has said. The project so far has generated little local opposition in Bucksport.

Faubel could have pressed the full Board of Environmental Protection to take up her appeal after the board’s chairman ruled she didn’t have standing to appeal the permit. By failing to press the complaint further, which she had to do by Jan. 25, Faubel ended the appeal process, said Cynthia Bertocci, the board’s executive analyst.

[Subscribe to our free morning newsletter and get the latest headlines in your inbox]

Company officials have said that the end of Faubel’s appeal will allow them to finalize a purchase-and-sale agreement for 120 acres at the mill site with owner American Iron and Metal. The deal remained unfinished as of Thursday, but Whole Oceans leaders were due to discuss next steps this week, said Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard, who said she was pleased that the appeal had lapsed.

“We appreciate that immensely,” Lessard said.

Whole Oceans officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

Company officials have said that the project could eventually create hundreds of direct jobs as they grow the initial $75 million investment into more than $250 million. The salmon farm will produce 5,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year once the first phrase is complete. The company plans to produce as much as 20,000 metric tons per year over the next 15 years.

Faubel said her environmental concerns about the project, which will draw water from and discharge wastewater into the Penobscot River, remain and that they were dismissed on a technicality.

[Developer: Belfast woman has no standing to challenge $250M Bucksport salmon farm]

“The issue of how this permit and license could affect the public’s waters including the river, Penobscot Bay and the Gulf of Maine still stands,” Faubel wrote in an email. “The specifics of the proposed operation at this particular site, in regard to mercury, ammonia, and the effect of the combined high volume discharge, need further review.”

In her appeal, Faubel suggested that toxins that have built up in the riverbed near the mill site could be pulled into the salmon farm’s growing tanks and expelled into the river. She also wrote that the farm’s wastewater discharge could dislodge the toxins from the riverbed.

Faubel sought to have Whole Oceans remove all mercury from the water the plant takes in for its salmon growing operations, filter mercury and ammonia from the water its releases into the Penobscot River, and test its discharge daily for mercury or ammonia contamination.

The scenario outlined in Faubel’s appeal is unlikely, said Ian Bricknell, a professor of aquaculture biology at the University of Maine who has studied the designs for the Bucksport and Belfast salmon farms and reviewed the appeal.

The wastewater discharge from the facility would hit the river too far from the toxins to dislodge them from the riverbed, he said. The toxins themselves are partly the result of discharge from industrial sites along the Penobscot River — including paper mill inks and red dye from a clothing manufacturer — but are mostly naturally occurring, Bricknell said.

[Bucksport salmon farm expected to break ground next spring]

It would be virtually impossible for the toxins themselves, particularly the mercury, to be pulled into the facility. The toxins are far larger and heavier than bacteria, which the farm’s filtration system is designed to stop, said Bricknell, who has written more than 100 research papers and co-written four books on aquatic animal health.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding river pollution and wastewater discharge are very strict and highly unlikely to allow the scenario Faubel posits, Bricknell said.

“I don’t think she understands what we would call the hydrology and chemical processes by which [further contamination would occur], but it is excellent that she brought this up,” Bricknell said. “The biggest risk to the Penobscot will be climate change.”