Computer-generated mock-up of the land-based fish farm Nordic Aquafarms plans for the Samoa Peninsula.


Nordic Aquafarms may have taken a “monumental step forward” in late September when the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved development permits and certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the company’s plans to demolish a dilapidated pulp mill and build a $650 million land-based fish farm on the Samoa Peninsula, but it’s not swimming in clear water just yet.

An informal group of local residents calling themselves Citizens Protecting Humboldt Bay recently filed a lawsuit against the county and the Board of Supervisors alleging that, as lead agency, the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Specifically, the suit alleges that the EIR — which was prepared by engineering firm GHD on behalf of the county — “fails to adequately identify, evaluate, and/or require mitigation for all significant direct and cumulative environmental impacts the Project will cause.”

The EIR concludes that, with mitigation measures, the project will result in no significant environmental impacts. The litigants aren’t buying that.

“To the contrary,” their suit says, “substantial evidence shows the Project will have several significant unmitigated environmental effects … . Furthermore, the record shows that the County violated the information disclosure provisions of CEQA in several respects, failed to respond adequately to public and agency comments on the Draft EIR, and otherwise failed to proceed in the manner required by CEQA.”

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the board met in closed session to consider the lawsuit, and when they emerged about an hour later, county counsel reported that the board had unanimously agreed to hire Sacramento-based environmental law firm Remy Moose Manly to defend against the suit.

The petitioners are seeking a writ of mandate ordering the county to set aside the EIR along with its approval of the project. They’re also asking for costs and attorney’s fees “together with any other relief the Court deems necessary and proper.”

Who exactly are the Citizens Protecting Humboldt Bay? The lawsuit identifies them as “an unincorporated association of volunteer homeowners, residents, and business owners living and/or working in Humboldt County.” Elsewhere it says the members include Blue Lake resident Scott Frazer as well as Daniel Chandler, who’s on the steering committee for the environmental group 350 Humboldt. Both men wrote or co-wrote letters critiquing the EIR, and Chandler’s group was among the appellants who officially challenged its approval by the Humboldt County Planning Commission.

Reached by phone, Chandler said Frazer had asked him to add his name to the suit, though he (Chandler) hadn’t paid any money. He also said he doesn’t have high hopes.

“I don’t have any sense that it will be successful,” he said of the suit.

Chandler has higher hopes of success for the five appeals that have been filed to date with the California Coastal Commission, including one from 350 Humboldt. The other appellants are Frazer, Elk Grove resident Alison Willy, the Salmonid Restoration Federation and the Redwood Region Audubon Society. All five appeals challenge the county’s issuance of a Coastal Development Permit. 

According to Noaki Schwartz, the Coastal Commission’s deputy director of communications, environmental justice and tribal affairs, commission staff are currently reviewing the appeals and working to establish a timeline to bring them to the commission.

Meanwhile, staff are reviewing two other Coastal Development Permit applications for the project. One, filed by Nordic Aquafarms, is for use of an existing outfall pipeline on the project site to discharge treated wastewater into the ocean, a mile and a half offshore. 

The other application comes from the Humboldt Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. It’s for installation and operation of a seawater intake system (or “sea chest”) that would provide water from Humboldt Bay to the proposed salmon farm. 

“We don’t yet have a firm hearing date but are tentatively targeting spring of next year to bring these applications to the Commission,” Schwartz said in an email.

Chandler said the commission doesn’t necessarily have to grant a hearing on the appeals. He noted that the county’s Local Coastal Plan, which dates back to 1982, includes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions, which provide the basis of the appeal. In other words, he said, “What we appealed on is not appealable.” 

But the appeal argues that the county has been remiss in not updating its Local Coastal Plan, and thus 350 Humboldt shouldn’t be held back from challenging the permit. 

“The Coastal Commission is remiss also because they have not told the county they have to produce an acceptable plan,” Chandler said.

Reached by email, Nordic Aquafarms Public Relations Manager Jacki Cassida said the company is confident that the EIR is “a robust, thorough and complete analysis of potential environmental impacts from the project.” 

She went on to say that the company is reviewing both the lawsuit and the five appeals and is working with the county and the harbor district to determine next steps.

“We are certain the outcome will be a positive one for Nordic and Humboldt County,” Cassida said.