More than 200 people packed the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast on Tuesday night as officials from Nordic Aquafarms held an informational session about their proposed land-based salmon farm project.
While it wasn’t unusual to see a standing-room-only crowd at one of the company’s information sessions, something did seem different this week. Although plenty of opponents came armed with protest signs and pointed questions for Nordic — which has become standard practice over the last year — the meeting was generally calm and civil. People in the room seemed more inclined to applaud the scientists and company officials than jeer and heckle them.
Steve Hutchings of Belfast is a longtime teacher who said that he has seen many teenagers graduate high school and leave the state. He said he is encouraged that a company like Nordic wants to put down roots here and help give kids a reason to stay.
“I trust these folks. They’re good,” he said. “I trust our city government. I trust our state government. We need this to be an international town.”
Nordic’s scientists, officials and consultants who have been working on the permit applications gave attendees a nearly two-hour rundown of the work that has been done so far. The company was required to make this public presentation before it can file applications for four permits with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
At the outset, Nordic CEO Erik Heim described the ultimate goal of the $500 million Belfast project, which will be the fourth built by the Norwegian-owned company: to raise as much as 33,000 metric tons of salmon per year, which would equal 7 percent of the salmon consumed in the United States.
“We have gone above and beyond many of the requirements in Maine,” he said. “A process like this is extensive. We’ve solved many, many challenges along the way to make sure the project is a good fit for the community.”
He and others from the company described what the facility would look like and how it would be constructed in phases. They also used a map to show where the seawater intake and discharge pipes would be placed.
The siting of these pipes has seemed problematic for Nordic over the last few months, and the company could not get permission to place them where they originally wanted to. But they have found a path through submerged lands to get to the bay, and said Tuesday that the pipe would be buried so that it will not be visible.
Officials also described the way the project will look from various points in the neighborhood, stormwater planning, water consumption, wetland mediation, noise, odor and air pollution and more.
When the floor was opened up to comments and questions, many of those who spoke seemed generally in favor of the company’s plans, but certainly many were not. While some conservation groups, including the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, have endorsed the proposal, Sierra Club Maine’s executive committee this week released a statement indicating strong opposition to it.
Susan Cutting, a Belfast woman who is part of Local Citizens for Smart Growth, a group that opposes Nordic Aquafarms coming to Belfast, had set up a homemade “CoolAid” stand outside the Hutchinson Center before the meeting began. In it, she offered locally made and homegrown treats as a contrast to the farmed fish that Nordic would grow in its tanks, and in her remarks she challenged the company’s assertion that it would be raising fish in an ecologically sound manner.
“I don’t think that it’s really about feeding the world for you, is it?” she asked. “Because what we have demonstrated here in Belfast is that we have an amazing local food movement. We have the [Belfast] Co-op and our two different farmers markets. There’s a lot going on here. We have a lot to show and share. That is a low carbon footprint. In this day and age, we can’t afford to do this to our children and future generations. Your industry is a huge facility that will have a huge carbon footprint.”
Heim acknowledged the need to lower carbon emissions generally, and said he agreed with Cutting about the importance of local food.
“The problem is that if you were going to feed the total U.S. population, organic, small-scale farming cannot do it because of yield,” he said. “You need a combination. So my point is, you need both. … It’s not an either-or question.”
Another questioner, Sid Block of Northport, told company officials that although that night they presented a “very impressive” survey of their plans, he still has not made up his mind about the fish farm.
“To date, there’s been no independent, objective analysis of your data,” he said, adding that he is concerned about effects to the aquifer and generally to the health of the bay. “I’m reassured, however, that the Maine [Board of Environmental Protection] will hold hearings [about the proposal].”
But others in the audience sounded enthusiastic rather than worried.
“I’m so excited about your coming to Belfast and making Belfast a better place,” Diane Braybrook of Belfast said. “I have no qualms.”