The Humboldt County Planning Commission met July 28 to consider certifying Nordic Aquafarms' Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) but, after three-and-a-half hours of presentations and public comment, continued the meeting to Aug. 4. The hybrid meeting was plagued by technical difficulties, resulting at times in some commissioners being unable to speak, and requiring the postponement of the consent agenda.
The Nordic Aqaufarms project seeks to build a large land-based facility on a currently contaminated industrial site owned by the Humboldt County Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District to raise Atlantic salmon. The project is described as a "recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility," and includes the construction of five buildings, a 4.8-megawatt solar panel array and water intake and outfall facilities. Raised from eggs, the fish would not touch bay or ocean water at any point during their lives, swimming in indoor tanks and underwater pipes. Water would be filtered and sterilized by ultraviolet light both before it enters the facility and again before it leaves.
The FEIR identifies many potential impacts, but states that they can all be reduced to insignificant levels. Many members of the audience did not agree with this conclusion, while others were less concerned with environmental issues and instead focused on the perceived economic benefits of the project.
If the FEIR is accepted, Nordic Aquafarms would then seek a Coastal Development Permit. But that is just the first in a long series of agency approvals and permits needed before the project could break ground, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Coastal Commission, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the National Marine Fishery Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all having a chance to weigh in and vet various aspects of the proposal.
County planner Cade McNamara, helped by other staff, reviewed the project for the commissioners at the July 28 meeting. He said the facility would require approximately 2.5 million gallons per day of fresh, untreated water provided by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District and sourced from the Mad River. The facility would also require approximately 10 million gallons of saltwater per day, which would be taken from Humboldt Bay. Approximately 12.5 million gallons of treated wastewater would be discharged daily via an existing ocean outfall pipe, which extends 1.5 miles offshore. Although two other facilities use the outfall pipe, it still has plenty of unused capacity, McNamara said.
The site, zoned as Industrial and Coastal Dependent, is currently classified as a "brownfield," meaning the area is polluted, and must be remediated before it can support any projects. Nordic intends to do this clean-up before it begins any further work on the project, demolishing existing buildings, and removing asbestos and lead from the soil.
There are some environmentally sensitive habitat areas on or near the site, McNamara said. The "dune mat," which consists of plants and animals mostly native to the area, is protected as part of the project design, and will be fenced off. Nordic must also compensate for damage to the longfin smelt, a small fish that is eaten by other aquatic animals, by building new habitat for it. A rare plant, the dark-eyed gilia, must be replaced elsewhere at a ratio of three to one. To avoid tsunami damage, tanks would be designed to withstand a "2,500-year hazard event," and back-up generators will be elevated above the predicted wave height.
However, the most controversial item in the FEIR is the project's energy use, which is estimated to be 195 gigawatt hours per year at full build-out. (A gigawatt hour is one million kilowatt hours.) This is the approximate equivalent of the energy use of the entire cities of Eureka and Fortuna combined.
Planning Director John Ford recommended approval of the project because it is a coastal dependent industrial use, conforms to the Humboldt Bay Area Plan, involves brownfield cleanup and, according to the FEIR, has minimized all environmental impacts to less than significant levels.
The next presentation was given by Larry Oetker, executive director of the Harbor District. Oetker pointed out that state law gives the district equal standing to that of any county government, and it has its own list of permits and consultations when deciding whether to approve a project.
Oetker had nothing but praise for the project.
"This is some of the most vacant, under-utilized, contaminated, blighted pieces of property that we have in Humboldt County," he said. "We've identified the clean, green, modern industries that are right for our community: wood products, aquaculture, broadband and offshore wind."
Nordic's project, Oetker said, fits nicely into an array of other ongoing and planned improvements to the peninsula, including the introduction of broadband cable, the proposed offshore wind farm and other aquaculture projects. He noted that the previous use by the pulp mills had left quite a lot of usable or salvageable infrastructure. For example, the outfall pipe, which Nordic hopes to use to drain wastewater, is already being used by several other tenants, including the wastewater treatment plant for the town of Samoa.
"Any coastal city in the world would be impressed by these types of infrastructure," he said.
Next it was Brenda Chandler's turn. Chandler is the interim CEO/CFO of Nordic and the public face of the project since the former president and vice president — Erik Heim and Marianne Naess — suddenly left the company in July with little explanation, three months after Nordic's American facilities were split off from the original European company. Chandler emphasized the difference between Nordic's land-based model and the net-pen facilities used by other companies, which raise fish in the ocean waters and have experienced many problems.
The first land-based commercial RAS plant was built in Denmark in 2014 and raised yellowjack fish. This was followed by a salmon-rearing RAS plant in Norway a few years later, and then by a salmon RAS plant sited in Belfast, Maine, which is fully permitted but has not yet broken ground, and has been controversial among Belfast residents.
Salmon, Chandler said, is a source of sustainable and healthy protein. She praised Nordic's "proven recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology," "highly experienced management team" and "strong design, build, and operate track record," among other things.
"We're fitting into the Harbor District's long-standing vision of an aquaculture park on the peninsula," she said, praising the region's cool, plentiful water, progressive renewable energy policies and closeness to markets. Although salmon can live in both saltwater and freshwater, the company chose to use mostly saltwater to minimize the more precious freshwater supplies.
"We want to be the employer and the neighbor everyone is proud of," Chandler said.
Nearly two hours into the meeting, the public was given its turn to comment. Since the meeting was hybrid, many speakers were present at Supervisors Chambers in the courthouse, while others waited on hold to phone in their ideas.
Operating Engineers Local No. 3, a statewide union that represents the building trades, was heavily represented at the meeting, with about 17 speakers praising the project. Many of them said they had to leave the area to find decent-paying work, and looked forward to local jobs that pay a living wage.
"Nordic did above and beyond what is required," said Harry Herker, a member of the union. "They took a dilapidated pulp mill and are turning it into a viable industry. They're going to provide 300 construction jobs, and then when the project is complete, 150 permanent full-time jobs."
Other locally known supporters included Kent Sawatzky, who comments on many topics at nearly every public county meeting; Larry Doss, who ran unsuccessfully for the Fifth District supervisorial seat; Rafael Cuevas-Uribe, a fisheries professor at Cal Poly Humboldt and Natalynne DeLapp; executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance.
John Friedenbach, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, phoned in to give some perspective on the relatively "small" amount of Mad River water Nordic plans to use. The district, he said, was founded about 50 years ago to supply the pulp mills with 65 million gallons of water a day. When the mills closed, the water went unused, and now the state, under its "use it or lose it" policies, may want to ship the Mad River's water to drier areas.
Nordic's 2.5 million gallons seems like a small amount in comparison to historic uses and he urged the commissioners to support the project.
There were, however, also many residents who opposed the project on environmental grounds. Ten of them were from the organization 350 Humboldt, which is devoted to trying to slow down or halt climate change. Most of the group's concerns centered on the project's large energy demands.
Although Nordic has promised to use renewable energy, there may not be enough of it available. The transmission grid in Humboldt is very limited, which would make importing renewable energy from other parts of the state impractical if not impossible. Some also questioned the large amount of refrigerant gases the project will require to chill the fish. Some of these gases, when they leak into the atmosphere, are a more potent driver of global warming than carbon dioxide or methane by a factor of 2,000, and Nordic has declined to identify which ones it will use.
Humboldt is trying to reach state-mandated goals on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but, if the proposed offshore wind farm is not up and running by the time Nordic is ready to roll and Nordic is unable to obtain enough local renewable energy to meet its needs, the company will have to rely on fossil fuels. This would put a big crimp in Humboldt's efforts to meet the state mandates.
Jennifer Knight, a member of the local climate change action group 350, also believes the greenhouse gas cost of fish food for the salmon has been grossly underestimated in the FEIR. CEQA does not require greenhouse gas calculations for products made outside California.
Fish food was mentioned in several other contexts as a problem. Salmon is at the top of the marine food chain, which means it eats a large number of small fish that feed Indigenous people around the world. Growing salmon commercially could be seen as a form of social injustice, since it deprives poor people of needed protein to provide wealthy people with a luxury food. Other people noted that if an outbreak of diseases occurred in the fish tanks, Nordic would mix antibiotics in the fish food, and wondered if this would lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Other people suggested modifying the project, starting out with a smaller endeavor and gradually increasing its size. Several people thought it would be wise to require a $500 million performance bond from Nordic, just in case it went belly-up and left the county with a mess to clean up.
About the same number of speakers opposed the project as supported it.
By 9:39 p.m., the meeting had been going on for nearly four hours. After the public comment period ended, Commissioner Brian Mitchell said he was phoning in from the East Coast, where it was after midnight. The commissioners, who had not had a chance to discuss any of this material, quickly voted to continue the meeting to Aug. 4, when they will pick up the conversation.
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.