Artist's rendering of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon facility in Belfast. Credit: Nordic Aquafarms

BELFAST, Maine — Two and a half years after Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms announced that it plans to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms near the Little River in Belfast, the $500 million project is in a waiting game.

Officials from Maine Board of Environmental Protection, the Bureau of Public Lands and the Belfast Planning board are still considering whether to issue operating permits for the project, which plans to produce 72.7 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually for consumers in the northeastern United States.

The project has been mired with substantial legal challenges that have yet to be resolved and its timeline remains uncertain.

While the boards and courts deliberate, here is a closer look at three environmental questions raised about the proposed facility.

How would the fish farm affect the bay?

Up to 7.7 million gallons of wastewater per day will flow from a pipe under Route 1 and tidal mudflats before it’s discharged into Belfast Bay.

This waterfront spot on Penobscot Bay is where Nordic Aquafarms would like to bury its intake and outfall pipes. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The wastewater will be highly filtered and sterilized. Still, as much as 407 pounds of tiny suspended solids and 356 pounds of biochemical oxygen demand, which can decrease water quality, will go into the bay every day. The daily discharge also would contain up to 13 pounds of phosphorous and 1,480 pounds of nitrogen, a nutrient that can overstimulate the growth of algae.

Damian Brady is an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, who has spent a lot of time monitoring the water quality of Penobscot Bay. He also has worked with companies that have proposed similar recirculating aquaculture systems, though he hasn’t worked with Nordic.

Brady said almost all of the discharge will be dissolved before making its way into the bay.

“Fish waste makes it sound like the extra fish guts, or extra pellets of feces in the water,” Brady said. “It’s not. That stuff is retained. It’s valuable.”

Damian Brady is an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences. Credit: University of Maine

But even dissolved nutrients can alter the environment, which is one reason why the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has monitored the nutrient levels in water closely since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Nitrogen, especially, is a problem because too much of it can lead to dead zones.

“In salt water, nitrogen is often the limiting nutrient,” Brady said.

Maine doesn’t have any dead zones, partly because of its relatively cold ocean water and large tides. But if there were no regulations, there likely would be a dead zone near Bucksport because of the paper companies that discharged pollution into the Penobscot River for years, Brady said.

Still, opponents of the fish farm fear the daily stream of effluent will damage the fragile ecosystem that has begun to heal from the decades when Belfast’s chicken processing plants dumped waste into the city’s bay. They also are concerned the effluent will linger in one place, potentially raising the water temperature of the nearby bay.

But those fears may be unfounded, Brady said.

“I don’t think anyone can say that a single discharger within Belfast Bay will degrade the water quality of Penobscot Bay writ large,” he said.

Here’s one way to think about it: Belfast Bay encompasses roughly 8.5 square miles, with about a 10-foot tidal range. A lot of water moves in and out all the time, he said, so the daily effluent won’t oversaturate the bay.

“People hear 7 million gallons per day, and it sounds like a big number — and it is a big number,” Brady said. “But it’s small relative to the tidal exchange.”

Other scientists have illustrated the relationship of this dynamic as one drop of water in a 5-gallon bucket.

“The solution to pollution is dilution, as they say, and that’s a lot of dilution,” Brady said. “I just absolutely cannot foresee it causing a temperature change in Belfast Bay. Physics would tell me it’s impossible.”

While the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is tasked with ensuring Nordic and other land-based aquaculture companies have robust, transparent monitoring programs in place, Brady said those worried about the government’s ability to be an effective watchdog can join citizen science efforts, such as the Maine Coastal Observing Alliance, to help independently monitor the bay.

“If this is the project that gets people more interested in preserving water quality in this area, I think there’s indirectly a pretty good thing going on,” he said.

What about mercury?

Maine is still grappling with the environmental aftermath of HoltraChem, the now-defunct chlor-alkali plant in Orrington that discharged as much as 12 tons of toxic methyl mercury into the Penobscot River decades ago.

Map of mercury concentrations found in the Penobscot River and in the upper portion of Penobscot Bay from the 2018 engineering report that is part of the Penobscot River mercury study. Credit: Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

This 2018 map from the Penobscot River mercury study shows how far the mercury traveled: upriver all the way to Eddington, and downstream to Frankfort, Bucksport, Verona Island and beyond. Lobsters caught in the area from Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs to Perkins Point in Castine contained high enough mercury concentrations that the state closed a total of 12.5 square miles to lobster and crab fishing, although the levels were still less than the amount found in a can of albacore tuna.

Some opponents of the Nordic Aquafarms project fear disastrous consequences, if mercury that has settled along the ocean floor dislodges during the excavation of the intertidal zone that’s needed to lay pipes for the project.

But Larry Mayer, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Maine, said that more mercury is likely to be found in quiet waters with fine-grained mud on the bottom — such as the Passagassawakeag River valley in Belfast — than the area near the proposed fish farm.

“The Little River is small, so I would doubt there is enough place for fine-grained mud to deposit,” he said.

Nordic officials testified to the Board of Environmental Protection that two samples of marine sediment collected in November 2018 near its proposed pipeline site contained concentrations of mercury that are well within state and federal environmental standards.

Larry Mayer is a professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Maine. Credit: University of Maine

Nordic plans to dispose of any potentially toxic dredge material from the construction of its pipes by barging it to Mack Point in Searsport, where it will be transferred to dump trucks bound for a mainland landfill. Transporting that sediment upstream has caused concern for some, but not Mayer.

“To me, the liability is in the different direction,” he said. “If I were Nordic, I would worry more about stuff being dislodged upstream and getting into the feed waters for my [downstream] salmon operations.”

He feels there’s a more serious threat that this would happen in Bucksport, where Whole Oceans, another proposed land-based salmon farm, has already received its construction permits with far fewer challenges from the public. Bucksport is closer to the HoltraChem site, which is subject to big washouts.

“All it takes is that once-in-a-decade storm to erode a bank up at the HoltraChem site and flush out a big pile of that stuff the same day the salmon farms are filling up their tanks,” he said. “If I was selling salmon out of either of those two places, but especially Bucksport, I would want to watch the feed water and have some quality control on my product to make sure it’s going out without mercury in it.”

A 2018 rendering of the planned Whole Oceans salmon farm on the site of the defunct Verso Paper mill in Bucksport. Credit: Whole Oceans

Is there enough freshwater to support the demands of the fish farm?

When it’s fully built, the Nordic Aquafarms facility will use nearly roughly 1,205 gallons of freshwater per minute drawn from three sources: the Belfast Water District municipal supply, onsite groundwater wells and surface water from Belfast Reservoir No. 1, a 55-acre containment pond near the mouth of the Little River.

Keith Pooler, the longtime superintendent of the Belfast Water District, said that before agreeing to sell Nordic as much as 500 gallons of water per minute, the district made calculations based on scarce water supplies from 2001, a record drought year in Maine. It found there is more than enough water to meet the demand.

“We used the worst case scenario to come up with a safe year,” he said.

The Belfast Water District office in Belfast near the Little River. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Hydrologist Andrew Reeve, a professor in the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences, independently reviewed one of Nordic’s groundwater modeling reports. He had been contacted by people concerned the project would affect wetlands and surface water, causing nearby wells to run dry or suffer from saltwater intrusion.

While no model can be perfect, Reeve said Nordic put forth a “good effort” to present reasonable data to the public — though acknowledged that hasn’t eased fears for the staunchest critics of the project.

“It’s almost like people decide what they want, and decide which model matches what they want, instead of doing it the other way,” he said.

The scientists at Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Geological Survey do a good job monitoring water levels and quality, Reeve said, but watershed or riverkeeper groups should also independently monitor the data.

Professor Andrew Reeve of the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences. Credit: Andrew Reeve

“It’s in Nordic’s interest to have a sustainable water supply, but I’ll quote Ronald Reagan and say, ‘Trust, but verify,’” he said. “I would certainly have local community involvement, or somebody else looking over [the company’s] shoulder,” he said.