Opposition to Jonesport fish farm mounts; lack of environmental study cited

The environmental activists who organized against a proposed aerospace company that intends to launch nano-rockets from a Jonesport island has turned its sights on a Dutch company that proposes to build a $100 million land-based fish farm on 94 acres fronting on Chandler Bay. The most recent battle site was a Jonesport planning board meeting late last month at which Kingfish Maine sought approval for structures covering over half a million square feet on the property locally known as Dungarvin.

The opponents, ranging from several local residents to a Sierra Club executive committee member and the high school science teacher (who holds a Ph.D. in environmental dynamics), knew of the meeting in advance and had submitted written statements to the board. Their concerns centered, among other things, on the amount of nitrogen to be expelled into the bay, the trade-off of economic gain for protection of the environment, and the lack of an environmental impact study. Board chair Frank Smith gave the members several minutes to read their papers before opening the meeting.

Over 20 people, including one former and all three current selectmen, were packed into the small room where town committees usually meet. Also present was Kingfish Maine’s operation manager Megan Sorby, its engineer William Lane, media manager Dianna Fletcher, and technical project manager Darrell Richards.

Nitrogen, open v. closed system
Smith began with a review of the state licenses that Kingfish had already acquired and those that the company still sought. Already secured from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were permits for wastewater discharge, natural resources, and site location. Still sought, said Sorby, were a federal Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit, a state wastewater disposal permit, and an entrance permit from the Maine Department of Transportation.
Smith immediately recommended that the planning board table the application until the remaining permits were in hand, then opened discussion with concern about how much nitrogen would be discharged daily into the bay. The answer was in the permits, said Sorby: 1,580 pounds per day. Smith likened that discharge to him loading 1,580 pounds into his half-ton pick-up truck and dumping it into the bay. Sorby said the number was based on DEP-approved computer modeling, based on tidal action. A representative from nearby Roque Island said that she wanted to see modeling done in the bay, not in a computer lab.

Jim Merkel of the Sierra Club would later state that 1,580 pounds was five times what was allowed other Maine fish farms that produced many more pounds of fish. He called the Kingfish project “a very bad idea” and urged against risking the clean water, “your most precious commodity.” (Last summer, Merkel spearheaded the Sierra Club’s challenge to the DEP’s granting of the wastewater discharge permit. The appeal was denied for lack of standing.)

Smith next asked why Kingfish couldn’t use a closed system that took in an initial amount of seawater and re-circulated it, rather than an open system that sucked in and expelled out 28 million gallons of bay water per day. (Several other town officials later said they thought the project, first announced in November 2019, was to be a closed system.) Sorby explained that 75 percent of the daily exchange was used for heat exchanging. The 25 percent that came in contact with the fish went through vigorous treatment before returning to the bay. She added that the only closed system tried in the United States had failed: the fish had gotten sick and died. (Merkel said that closed systems were working well in Nova Scotia and British Columbia.)

Environmental study, DECD on area economy
There was no environmental impact study (EIS) in Kingfish’s submissions, as none was required for the permits issued by the DEP. The hoped-for sign-off from the Army Corps of Engineers, because it deals with wetlands, could require one, many said. Several speakers—Smith, science teacher Richard Aishton, Jonesporter Carrie Peabody—called for an EIS to be conducted. (The applicant would foot the bill.)

“We’re the test dummy,” said Smith. “The community’s so dependent on the ocean, how can we not demand one?” Aishton: “We need to understand the end result at the beginning.”

Correspondence between the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and the DEP raised some critics’ hackles. They alleged it implied that the DECD had urged the DEP to relax its standards because of the depressed Washington County economy. By letter dated March 5, 2021, DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson wrote to DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim providing what she called a “Determination of Economic or Social Necessity of the Kingfish project…[as] required per Maine DEP’s Water Discharge Program Guidance re Antidegradation Procedures and Consideration.”

Using established criteria, Johnson wrote that Washington County met federal economic distress criteria since its per capita income ($41,094) was 80 percent or less than the national average. She further wrote that the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Business and Economic Research, which performed an analysis of the economic impact of an aquaculture facility in coastal Maine, concluded that Kingfish’s “capital investment and operations…will provide economic benefits throughout the Maine economy” in terms of increased jobs, income, tax base and “improved community resiliency” — all of which the DECD deemed “significant.”

Smith asked Sorby (and opponents had highlighted in written material to the planning board) whether the DECD was asking the DEP to relax the usual standard for nitrogen release that is required of other applicants. Sorby answered that the DEP made no exception for Kingfish and added that her company was not in violation of the Clean Water Act [upon which the standards used by the DEP is based].

Planning board’s jurisdiction questioned
Billy Milliken, a selectman, and realtor who handled the sale of Dungarvin to Kingfish, had previously recused himself from his town seat when discussion of Kingfish came before the select board. Now that the property has fully changed hands — the exchange of papers with W. W. Wood, Inc. took place in late November — he fully engages.
When discussion at the December planning board meeting got into the weeds of percentages of nitrogen and oxygen and their effect on creatures in the bay, he called those issues “maybe not appropriate for your decision.” The town relies on the DEP and other agencies for such determinations, he insisted. It was not the town’s purview.
The planning board did not agree. “Our [shoreland zoning] ordinance requires us to protect the town,” said member Paul Iossa, another Jonesport realtor. “Why would this not be the proper place to talk about it?” Smith agreed, noting that a town can be more restrictive than state dictates.

(The ordinance compels the town to approve a use only after it “makes a positive finding…that the proposed use…will not result in water pollution…will adequately provide for the disposal of all wastewater…will not have an adverse impact on spawning grounds, fish…birds or other wildlife habitat…[and] will not adversely affect existing commercial fishing.”)

Milliken further insisted that Kingfish should have a chance to explain their project in a larger meeting in a larger room. Assistant Harbormaster John Church noted that there had already been three public meetings, two of which were held in the fire station. “You are doing due process,” he told the board. [Two other meetings have been held in the library.]

Planning board member Alvin Grignon said he was not comfortable with the science proffered by Kingfish. He recommended that the board meet with and question members of the DEP about their approval of the Kingfish project. His suggestion was met with applause.

It appears that the board is going in that direction. Next week (6 p.m., Tuesday, January 11 in the town office), it will hold a workshop to discuss the next step, including seeking legal advice and information from the licensing agencies. (Since it is a workshop, the public may not be invited to speak.)

Nancy Beal
Machias Valley News Observer