BELFAST, Maine — With eiders and loons bobbing beside her on the bay, bald eagles above and seals below, Amy Grant recalled how the coast here used to be lined with the blood and guts of thousands of chickens and sardines.
As she passed the now-closed canneries and processing plants, her rowboat drifted to a stop near the outfall of the Little River, where a proposed new factory would release an estimated 7.7 million gallons of waste water a day into the cleaned-up bay — 90 percent more than the small city now produces.
The controversial proposal by a Norwegian company to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms in Belfast would be a boon to this cash-strapped city on Penobscot Bay, bringing in millions of dollars in property taxes and as many as 100 new jobs.
But the $500 million plant, which would clear more than 50 acres of woods along the coast and become by far the biggest building in this city of 6,500, has sparked significant dissent throughout Belfast, including a lawsuit, protests at local meetings, and several write-in candidates for City Council.
“I worry that this beautiful bay could be sent back to the ecological dark ages, when the bay ran with chicken blood and the saying was, ‘If you want to go to hell fast, go to Belfast,’ ” said Grant, president of Upstream Watch, one of the environmental groups that has been protesting the proposed salmon farm.
Local officials have mainly welcomed the proposal, with city councilors voting unanimously to change the zoning where the plant would be built. Many of them see aquaculture as a sign of things to come in Maine, a way to diversify a coastal economy that has become overly reliant on lobster, especially as climate change threatens to disrupt the vital industry.
Proponents of the plan, which mirrors a similar project under consideration in nearby Bucksport, note that the United States now imports more than 90 percent of the seafood the public consumes, most of which is farmed.
With a rising demand for seafood and a need to reduce expenses and carbon emissions, the country should be expanding its homegrown aquaculture, they say. Maine, with its long coastline and access to substantial amounts of freshwater and saltwater, provides an ideal location.
If the necessary permits are approved, Nordic Aquafarms plans to break ground on the project this summer and begin selling as much as 15,000 metric tons of salmon by 2021. If the first phase succeeds, the company plans to more than double its production by 2024.
A similar salmon farm is now under construction on a former tomato field in Homestead, Fla. When that plant is completed in about a decade, it will be even larger than those planned for Maine.
Company officials say it’s the right time to move operations to the United States, because the technology of indoor salmon farming has matured to the point that such large-scale operations are now feasible. Moreover, ocean salmon farming has become increasingly expensive and beset by a range of problems, including diseases such as sea lice, escapes into the wild, and pollution.
Many of those problems are eliminated when using special recirculation aquaculture systems that filter the massive tanks, they say.
“With indoor farming, we control everything that comes in and out of the facilities,” said Erik Heim, president of Nordic Aquafarms, noting that Americans now consume about 450,000 metric tons of salmon a year, more than any other nation. “We see a growing market, with a lot of unrealized potential.”
City officials said the amount of water that the company would buy, as well as its property taxes, would go far to improve the city’s aging water systems, affordable housing, and other programs and services.
“I think it’s an opportunity for Belfast to be part of an innovative movement in sustainable aquaculture,” said Samantha Paradis, the city’s mayor. “We’re going to have to find innovative ways to feed the world’s population protein.”
She added: “I wouldn’t support it unless I strongly believed that the governmental agencies could do the job of keeping the water safe.”
But an increasingly vocal group of local opponents say city officials are being seduced by the project’s potential economic benefits into risking the hard-fought environmental improvements that have helped make Penobscot Bay one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
They have sued the City Council for changing the property’s zoning from residential to commercial. They have demonstrated at public meetings, holding up signs that read “Nordic Go Home” and “No Waste in Our Bay.” Several ran unsuccessful protest campaigns in last month’s election to draw attention to the issue.
The tension in the city has been so great that a freelance opinion columnist at the local newspaper was fired after his boss at the Republican Journal received complaints from Nordic Aquafarms and accused him of crusading against the proposal.
The opponents’ concerns include the massive amounts of water the plant will use, which they worry will deplete local aquifers; the digging of trenches for an outfall pipe they fear could disturb mercury deep in the sediment from previous pollution; and the fecal matter and other effluent that will carry substantial amounts of nitrogen and other chemicals into the bay, which could harm fish and cause toxic algae blooms.
“When you slow down and start to look at the large-scale realities of this concentrated, industrial activity, there’s just no avoiding serious environmental consequences,” said Ellie Daniels, an organizer of Local Citizens for Smart Growth, which filed the lawsuit against the city and is considering further legal action to block the project. “Our primary concern is that this is a concentrated animal feeding operation that poses very real threats to our environment and to our natural resources.”
Some local fishing groups are also opposing the proposal. They worry about the consequences of the bleach, methanol, and other chemicals the plant would empty into the bay, saying that any tainted seafood could put the entire industry at risk.
“Penobscot Bay shouldn’t be treated as a cesspool or a dumping ground,” said Kim Ervin Tucker, legal counsel for the Maine Lobstering Union. “If there’s any contamination at all, it could damage the reputation for wholesomeness of the Maine lobster brand. That would be terrible.”
Despite such concerns, the company’s plans have been endorsed by several of the region’s major environmental and scientific groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and the Altantic Salmon Federation.
While the groups acknowledge there are legitimate concerns, they’re confident they can be managed by effective oversight.
“We’ve taken a hard look at the proposed operations, and we think it takes appropriate steps to ensure meeting water quality standards,” said Sean Mahoney, director of the Maine Advocacy Center for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. “From our perspective, the impact to Belfast Harbor and Penobscot Bay will be minimal.”