Nordic Aquafarms took a giant step closer to its goal of building a fish-rearing facility on the Samoa peninsula Aug. 4 when the Humboldt County Planning Commission unanimously certified the company's Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) and also granted it a Coastal Development Permit and a Special Permit.
The commission listened to one last brief presentation from Nordic before going into an hour-long debate on the merits and potential problems of the project. There was no public input at this meeting, as that had already occurred at the previous July. 28 meeting. Technical difficulties prevented part of the meeting from being watched remotely on Access Humboldt's live TV channel, but Zoom connections to the hybrid meeting appeared to work as planned.
Six of the seven commissioners were present during most of the meeting, with Brian Mitchell, an at-large member, absent, and Peggy O'Neill, the District Five representative, phoning in late.
Nordic Vice President of Operational Quality Control Nick King addressed some issues raised during last week's public hearing. He first praised the community for its robust interest in the project, which he said had resulted in a better product.
"Ninety-nine percent of the water used is re-circulated," he said. "Each gallon of water is re-used 100 times before we discharge it."
"No estradiol or hormones of any kind are added to our feed or to our water. All of our fish are female. All fish are harvested ... before they become reproductively mature."
"The amount of fish oil and fish meal in salmon feed has significantly dropped over the decades ... and is only 15-to-20 percent today."
"Nordic Aquafarms has committed to voluntary water quality monitoring and reporting beyond what is required in our discharge permit," King continued. "The project is required to monitor and report on a large array of parameters. Our performance and our compliance will be evaluated on a regular basis, and renewed every five years. This renewal will be contingent upon evidence that our effluent does not impact the environment."
GHD Environmental Planner Andrea Hilton explained Nordic would be monitoring its effluent beyond the requirements of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a federal program that protects clean water. The supervising agency in Humboldt is the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
King briefly discussed energy issues, mentioning the company's "voluntary commitment to purchasing 100 percent non-carbon and/or renewable energy available to us from regional energy suppliers and local sourcing. ... The farm will also construct a 4.8-megawatt, 14-acre solar array to help meet our energy needs."
Commissioner Noah Levy asked for more specific information on water quality monitoring. County Planning Director John Ford explained that Nordic's permit must be renewed every five years by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has the option of requiring more robust sampling if it deems that necessary. More questions and answers on this topic were exchanged between county staff and commissioners.
The roles of other permitting agencies were also discussed. The project's
intake system is under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, with the applicant for the permit being the Humboldt County Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. The water board is responsible for monitoring water quality associated with any water intake from new construction.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is responsible for the Incidental Take Permit, as it relates to longfin smelt, and other threatened species, and must license the fish eggs that will be brought onto the site to raise the farmed stock. National Marine Fisheries also monitors the intake apparatus, regulating the flow of water from Humboldt Bay and the size of the screen. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates a pipeline that goes through the intertidal wetlands. The Coastal Commission also regulates both impacts to threatened species of plants and animals, and also the outfall apparatus of the facility.
As is required by CEQA, the county consulted with all these agencies while writing the EIR. However, the county is not allowed to impose regulations that fall under the jurisdiction of other agencies.
County Planner Cade McNamara addressed some other comments previously made by members of the public. He explained that sea level rise is related to a rise in groundwater levels, "and the potential for hazardous materials within the soil leaching into this water increases." To remedy this danger, potentially contaminated soil on the project site, a contaminated former pulp mill, "will be removed down to the groundwater."
Regarding greenhouse gas emissions resulting from energy use, McNamara said "the project has consulted with RCEA, whose goals are aligned with state initiatives, by procuring 100 percent of renewable energy or a green power mix. The project is in line with these state initiatives. ... For these reasons this potential impact has been deemed less than significant. "
Regarding the greenhouse gas emissions required to make fish feed, McNamara was more evasive. "Nordic aspires to be certified through the Aquaculture Stewardship Council," he said. "The AFC requires that feed mills report greenhouse gases. This is not a requirement for feed purchasers [and therefore] that is not within the purview of CEQA for this project."
Regarding tsunami dangers, he noted that "the project is designed to survive a 2,500-year event, and water levels inside of these buildings would reach a maximum of 5 feet..."
Regarding proposed refrigerants, he said those are regulated by the state and federal governments. No refrigerants will be used illegally, he said.
Second District Commissioner Thomas Mulder asked about the effect of project-related trucks interfering with parking along State Route 255. Cade said it would not affect coastal access.
A bit of cross-agency sniping occurred between the Harbor District and the Planning Commission. First District Commissioner Alan Bongio wondered why Nordic did not want to own the land that its facility would be on, and guessed that the Harbor District did not want to sell it to the company. He was worried about the county getting the tax base from the project, and also wondered what would happen if Nordic walked away from the project, suggesting the Harbor District put up a bond protecting the people of Humboldt County. He also complained that the Harbor District had not followed through on its earlier promises to dredge the channels in King Salmon.
Harbor District Director of Development Rob Holmlund replied:
"The vast majority of businesses don't own the land that they operate on. The district would be required to pay the EPA back [for previous environmental clean-up] if the district were to sell the land, which would put the cost beyond the reach of Nordic at the moment... Regarding taxes, the county has approved the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District ... over the course of 20 years, the district will produce $350 million of property tax."
As to dredging at King Salmon, Holmlund said it's unrelated to the project at hand and faces its own regulatory hurdles.
"Our interests are also of the people and of the county," Holmlund said. "Your interests are the same as our interest."
The two went back and forth for a few minutes.
Bongio then threw some criticisms at the environmental community.
"I think this is a really great project," he said. "The minute I knew it was a great project was when every environmental group came out against it because when you have a good project they come out against it, and when you have junk project they never say a word."
O'Neill asked if the Harbor District would own the improvements and take back possession of the land and buildings if there were a problem. She was
concerned about a good tenant selling its assets to a bad tenant, resulting in losses to the community.
Holmlund replied that the Harbor District had stepped in after the pulp mills abandoned a polluted site, and done a great job getting the worst of the pollution under control.
"The district is committed to making sure that what happened last time, which is a company packed up and left, and abandoned the site, isn't going to happen again," he said.
"There is no perfect project," said at-large Commissioner Melanie McCavour. "Every project is a trade-off. Look at the No Action alternative. You have to look at the fact that 40 percent of the farmed fish that we're getting right now is from China. ... I support the project."
Levy said he thought it was a good project but was trying to make it even better. He stated that many enviroanmental groups have not rejected the project, and that several groups liked some aspects but also wanted some improvements.
He criticized the inclusion of biomass power as an energy source for the project, saying, "It's renewable but it's not carbon-neutral."
Levy was also concerned about emissions from the trucking associated with the project, and hoped that Nordic would transition to zero-emission vehicles as soon as they are available. He thought the trucks would make State Route 255 more dangerous, and that Nordic should contribute money for public safety improvements.
McCavour argued with Levy about biomass.
"We have a lot of forest harvest residue here in Humboldt County, and the closest place that we can take that is about 400 miles away. Anything you can gain out of not using it here ... is lost by the fact that we have to truck this stuff very long distances. I support biomass as a sustainable source of energy."
Fourth District Commissioner Mike Newman said the project is very well designed and thought it would lead to other good, sustainable projects on the peninsula.
"In the past we've had many more trucks on those roads," he commented, asking for a more global approach to traffic problems. "More monitoring and citations would help all over Humboldt County for that, especially going through Eureka. Issuing traffic citations will bring speeds down and enhance public safety tremendously."
Newman also expressed concern about over-dependence on electrical use "because that electricity has to be generated someplace and most of the time it's from carbon-generated plants."
He was also happy to hear about the rigorous effluent discharge monitoring requirements and liked the tsunami protection being available for local citizens. "It's better than going up on the tallest sand dune, which the option that we have right now. ... I applaud Nordic Aquafarms for keeping their hands on the plow, to make this project here ... so I thank them for that. I will be saying yes on this project."
Bongio had more to say about biomass.
"If we lived in the desert and said, 'We don't have no biomass but what we have is sun and sand. Let's put solar fields up.' But we live in forests. So let's do biomass. Let's do what we have here. ... The trucking that they're proposing is about a tenth of what went down that road every day when we had two pulp mills and two lumber mills out there."
Levy said again that it was a really great project and he applauded Nordic for having gone above and beyond what was required of the company.
Mulder moved to certify the environmental impact report, and issue the Coastal Developmental Permit and a special permit, "subject to the recommending conditions."
McCavour seconded. The six members of the commission present passed it unanimously. The scanty audience present in the Supervisors Chambers applauded.
Nordic headquarters responded with a press release praising the decision and said it would now go before "the California Coastal Commission and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board for the next step in the permitting process."
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.