The Humboldt County Planning Commission last night heard a series of informational reports followed by nearly two hours’ worth of public comment, which didn’t leave the deliberative body any time to deliberate and vote on the $650 million land-based fish farm that’s been proposed for the Samoa Peninsula. Thus, the hearing to consider certifying the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the approving two key permits was continued to next week’s meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4.
As a quick refresher, Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms has proposed a major development that would include the demolition and remediation of the long-defunct Samoa Pulp Mill facility followed by two-phase construction of a 766,530-square-foot recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility, which would produce up to 27,000
pounds metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year for distribution across the West Coast.
Thursday’s hearing began with a lengthy informational report led by the assigned county planner, Cade McNamara, and Byron Turner, a senior planner with LACO Associates, who helped prepare the environmental document. The pair outlined the project details and offered an overview of the various permitting agencies that musts sign off on various aspects of the endeavor. (See yesterday’s post and its links to previous Outpost coverage for more details.)
McNamara noted that Nordic’s project would be located on a high-priority site, a brownfield zoned for coastal-dependent industrial activity, and the company plans to conduct further abatement and cleanup before starting construction.
He then ran through a series of “master responses” to some of the 242 comments the county received about the project’s Environmental Impact Report. That collection of comments included 12 from local, state and federal agencies, 19 from non-governmental organizations and 79 from individuals, plus 132 letters of support.
Some of the major areas of concern include greenhouse gas emissions, the discharge of treated effluent from an existing mile-and-a-half-long outfall pipe, impacts to Humboldt Bay from water intake infrastructure and the carbon footprint of the project’s fish feed.
McNamara and Turner explained the analysis and mitigation measures that allowed the county to conclude that this project will have no significant environmental impacts.
A few Planning Commissioners had questions. Peggy O’Neill asked about earthquake safety for employees, for example, and Planning and Building Director John Ford explained that a large recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) building onsite has been designed as a refuge that can withstand a once-in-2,500-years seismic event.
Fellow commissioner Noah Levy asked about checkpoints between the first and second phases of construction and was assured that there are some. And Commissioner Melanie McCavour grilled Nordic staff about measures that will be taken to prevent the proliferation of naturally occurring estrogen from the fish feed into the ocean and bay.
Levy applauded Nordic staff, saying, “They have worked really hard to create a project that would set a new standard, in a lot of ways.” He also observed that the county has put “a lot of robust conditions” on it, adding, “I just see our job up here as trying to make sure those conditions are adequate, within the bounds of what’s feasible, to make this the best project it can be.”
In a separate presentation, Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Executive Director Larry Oetker described Nordic’s plans as an ideal fit for the coastal dependent former mill property owned by the Harbor District, and he raved about Humboldt Bay’s valuable infrastructure assets, including its ample supply of both fresh and saltwater, its underutilized industrial properties and its ocean outfall pipe.
“We were able to work and attract Nordic Aquafarms to come here because they recognize that this is the premier site on the entire west coast of the United States for aquaculture operations,” Oetker said. “I do not say that lightly. The infrastructure that you are evaluating here is the dream of almost any coastal community that you see.”
Brenda Chandler, Nordic’s interim CEO, gave her own presentation, saying company heard the public feedback and has “gone above and beyond, in some cases, and tried where we can to include your requests in our commitments to you where feasible.”
She cited the company’s commitment to using 100 percent renewable and non-carbon energy as an example and said, “We want to be the employer in the neighborhood [that] everyone is proud of.” The company expects to hire an estimated 150 full-time employees, not counting construction jobs, Chandler said.
“Our team hopes you agree that Nordic Aquafarms is the best fit for Humboldt County, from our strong foundation to our commitment to sustainable, balanced environmental and social values and delivery of fresh, sustainably produced food to the west,” she concluded.
The earliest batch of public comments was dominated by members of the Operating Engineers Local 3 union, who showed up to the meeting in force to advocate for the project, saying it would create much-needed living-wage jobs and allow them to show their kids something they’re proud to have helped build.
“Nordic has come in and gone above and beyond … ,” said union member Harry Herkert. “They’re taking a dilapidated, contaminated pulp mill and they’re going to turn it into a viable industry.”
He added that he’s not Nordic’s target market, since he goes out and catches his own salmon in the ocean, but he believes the company has done its due dilligence and will be a good neighbor for years to come.
“And it’s good to see that we’re attracting that kind of industry,” he continued. “We need it. The port’s falling apart. We need sustainable industry. We need jobs back, and they’re gonna supply 300 construction jobs — living-wage jobs — and then, going forward, 150 full-time jobs that are also going to be [paying] living, sustainable wages. … So I implore you, please pass this project. Do it tonight. Let’s get the ball rolling.”
Others voiced support, too. Colby Smart, assistant superintendent at the Humboldt County Office of Education, said county schools have a number of aquaponics programs that are languishing “in their infancy” because students don’t see a lot of career opportunities. “This changes that,” Smart said.
“This project represents a critical piece in that school-to-career pipeline, and I really, really endorse it,” he added.
Rafael Cuevas-Uribe, a fisheries biology professor and aquaculture expert at Cal Poly Humboldt, said he’d examined the plans for the project and was impressed by its state-of-the-art technology, including an advanced fine-mesh filtration system for effluent.
“I’ve never seen a recirculating system with this type of cutting-edge technology,” Cuevas-Uribe said. He noted the vast deficit between the amount of fish consumed in the United States and the amount produced and said the aquaculture industry has struggled because it’s been defined by its critics rather than its proponents. He included himself in the latter category and encouraged the county to approve the project.
John Friedenbach, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, reminded folks that the district’s “abundant” water, sourced from the Mad River, used to provide 65 million gallons per day to the two pulp mills that operated on the peninsula for decades. Nordic, by comparison, needs less than three million gallons per day, less than five percent of that previous demand. He too urged the Planning Commission to approve the project.
But plenty of people offered criticism and opposition, too, and as the public comment shifted from in-person to call-in, the balance gradually shifted toward members of local environmental groups who advocated either additional conditions of approval or outright denial of the project.
Several people said the fish farm’s saltwater intake infrastructure should be located offshore, rather than in the bay. Others faulted the Environmental Impact Report for making assumptions in its modeling and omitting analysis of key project components, such as the greenhouse gas impacts of its fish feed and egg supplies.
Eight separate members of the climate action group 350 Humboldt took a turn speaking, each voicing concerns about the project’s carbon dioxide emissions and the impacts on climate change.
“If this project goes forward, I would ask that you require a performance bond from Nordic in the amount of $500 million to protect Humboldt County taxpayers,” 350 Humboldt member Laura Simpson said.
Jessie Misha, chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Humboldt County chapter, said permit conditions need to be improved to ensure minimal climate impacts. She said the county should require Nordic to transition to zero-emission electric trucks and require fish feed with a low carbon footprint, re-evaluated annually.
Caroline Griffith, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, voiced appreciation for Nordic leadership’s accessibility to this point, but she added that the project is “really massive” and said her organization has some serious concerns.
The main one is the ocean discharge, and Griffith said the county should amend the conditions of approval to requiring monitoring the effluent as soon as it begins. It’s important to ensure, before phase two construction begins, that this discharge is not affecting biological resources or contributing to harmful algal blooms, she said.
Griffith also voiced concerns about emissions from transportation and fish feed as well as the sheer size of the proposed factory.
“The scale of the project is really concerning,” Griffith said. “And we suggest starting with a smaller project, or that the planning commission consider issuing a [coastal development permit] that expires within a set amount of time, maybe five or 10 years.”
Jennifer Kalt, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, echoed that last point, saying that if Nordic was willing to start with a smaller project and meet “clear benchmarks” before scaling up, it would “go a long way” toward addressing her organization’s various concerns.
Eventually, the list of public speakers reached it end, and while some members of the Planning Commission expressed interest in moving on to deliberations and possibly a decision, others spoke in favor of waiting until next week to wrap things up. Commissioner Brian Mitchell, for example, noted that he was calling in to the meeting from the East Coast, where it was well after midnight.
And so, with a motion, a second and unanimous approval, the Planning Commission agreed to come back next Thursday to consider everything its members have seen and heard thus far.