Nordic Aquafarms President Erik Heim addresses the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. | Screenshot.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a motion directing staff to go after state and federal grants — and any other possible sources of funding — to help pay for infrastructure improvements on the Samoa Peninsula.

The long-term goal is to spruce up that stretch of land, giving it a reliable supply of clean water and removing toxic chemicals from the old pulp mill site in hopes of fostering an industrial rebirth there. In the short-term, the county hopes to land one big fish — namely, Norwegian company Nordic Aquafarms, which has proposed building a massive land-based fish farm on the Harbor District’s Redwood Marine Terminal II property (formerly the pulp mill location).

Company president Erik Heim told supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting that his board of directors plans to make a decision in late September about whether or not Humboldt County is the right place for this $400 million investment. His question: What is the county willing to offer in the way of incentives?

“I’m here to understand what the county is prepared to do in terms of working with us [and] assisting us … in getting some potential funding sources,” Heim said.


As he delivered a PowerPoint presentation, Heim explained that there are two potentially expensive problems that could make the project financially infeasible here. One is finishing the cleanup on the contaminated brownfield; the other is repairing and upgrading the infrastructure of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District to ensure a reliable supply of water that’s clean enough to meet their needs.

The existing supply, which is delivered via pipeline from the Mad River, gets cloudy with sediment and bacteria during the high-flowing winter months. This turbidity makes the water unsuitable for aquaculture. According to Scott Adair, Humboldt County’s director of economic development, it will cost the water district between $16 million and $34 million to address deferred maintenance and upgrade the system.

Heim said he’s been talking with county staff about what’s available in terms of state and federal grants and other incentives. He noted that the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District has already received a cleanup grant from the Environmental Protection Agency but more money will be needed as Nordic explores the cost of demolishing old pulp mill buildings.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson noted that the water district had submitted a letter expressing their willingness to collaborate with Nordic, the county and others to pursue state and federal grant funding. And Wilson said that’s a logical process for the county to participate in.

“From my perspective, I think this is not an unusual discussion that a community might have when we want to seek out commercial development,” Wilson said. He added that it may seem “a bit squirrelly” when a single company is requesting such grant funds but in fact the infrastructure improvements would benefit the whole community.

Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass agreed, saying the peninsula is “on the verge of rebirth,” with two or three other projects looking to locate there. Other California counties have dedicated incentive programs, she noted.

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she agrees with the water district’s statement regarding a willingness to collaborate. “So, if teamwork can make this move forward, I think this is a good project for the county.”

Steve Madrone, the supervisor representing the Fifth District, said he applauds Nordic for addressing environmental and infrastructure issues early in the process, and he also praised the company’s Scandinavian approach toward employment, meaning their commitment to paying prevailing wages and engaging with unions.

“That’s a big positive from my perspective,” Madrone said.

But he also said he worries about a repeat of the past, when industrial owners walked away from their properties leaving huge cleanup projects in the county’s lap. “I’m looking for bonding,” he said.

Board Chair and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said that it’s great to talk about grants but he didn’t know how many might be available before the September deadline when Nordic’s board plans to make a decision.

During the public comment period, local resident Lynette Mullen, who has been hired as Nordic’s local community liaison, said that while it’s true her employer stands to benefit from any grants or incentives the county lines up, there’s a larger opportunity for the county in reducing barriers to development on the peninsula and developing a reputation for collaborating with businesses.

“So I think there’s a lot of opportunity for good here,” Mullen said.

Adair endorsed that perspective, saying the county’s economic development office has been engaged with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state’s Employment Development Department and other agencies in pursuit of grant opportunities. “Nordic has just been a catalyst for a deeper dive,” Adair said.

Fennell wound up making a motion directing staff to work with the water district and other agencies to pursue funding and financing solutions for infrastructure on the peninsula and report back to the board within 45 days. 

After some tinkering with the language of the motion, the board passed it unanimously.

Before the vote, Bass delivered something of a rallying cry: “If we’re really serious about economic development, we have to start acting like we are.”