Mad River Union
SAMOA PENINSULA – A Norway-based aquaculture company will soon decide whether to pursue a project on Humboldt Bay’s former pulp mill site and its interest has highlighted the economic potential of the Samoa Peninsula.
At its Aug. 3 meeting, Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors was updated on the project and its infrastructure-related challenges. The company, Nordic Aquafarms, entered a lease with the Harbor District, which owns the project site, but now has doubts due to the need to upgrade freshwater delivery infrastructure and the more expensive proposition of removing turbidity.
Economic Development Director Scott Adair came to the meeting with good news – a federal funding source will pay 80 percent of the $3 million cost of improving the delivery infrastructure.
And Nordic’s interest in the former mill site has been noticed beyond Humboldt County. Some businesses are now “interested in the (Samoa) Peninsula because of the attention that our community is receiving over the Nordic Aquafarms project,” Adair said.
“The opportunities are especially interesting to me and exciting because many of the businesses that have reached out to us and are looking to invest in the peninsula and start projects are companies whose services or products are aligned with solutions for climate change,” he continued.
He said the week before the meeting, three representatives of a company “interested in investment on the peninsula” visited the county. Their company is highly specialized, Adair continued, focusing on revitalizing plankton beds and rejuvenating ocean barrens.
Other businesses may have the same concern about water turbidity that Nordic does and that’s the most costly aspect of water infrastructure improvement. If a new facility is built to clarify the water, the cost could reach $50 million.
Water infrastructure isn’t the only utility concern on the Samoa Peninsula. Roads, bridges and broadband telecommunications infrastructure also need improvement or development and supervisors discussed forming a multi-jurisdictional Joint Powers Authority to handle it.
The Nordic project represents an initial $400 million investment and the creation of 100 primary and ancillary jobs. The site’s zoning includes aquaculture and the county is keen on promoting new industry.
But a letter of support for the project wasn’t approved without discussion and some debate. The letter is important to Nordic’s board of investors, which will decide on whether or not to go forward with the project on Sept. 15.
The letter is brief and mainly states that the Board of Supervisors “is pleased to support Nordic Aquafarms’ project for the construction of a new (Recirculating Aquaculture System) facility on the Samoa Peninsula.”
Supervisor Steve Madrone said the letter’s wording should be changed to indicate that the board “conditionally” supports the project because supervisors need to maintain an objective attitude.
“How do we support something that’s not actually before us other than a conceptual idea?” he asked.
During a public comment session, Lynette Mullen, Nordic Aquafarms’ community liaison, asked supervisors be careful about wording and define what “conditional” support means.
“If you just throw ‘conditional’ in that letter without explaining it, that could be a big red flag for the investors in Norway,” she said.
The water clarification is the “bigger issue” regarding infrastructure. “Because frankly, we were selling Humboldt County as having all this clean, fresh, wonderful water but it isn’t usable and they didn’t include that in their budget,” Mullen continued.
Supervisor Mike Wilson had concerns similar to Madrone’s and suggested edits to the letter. Supervisors delved into re-wording it but Supervisor Virginia Bass, whose district includes Samoa, warned against mentioning conditional support, as did county staff.
Saying, “I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole here,” Supervisor Estelle Fennell recommended keeping changes as minimal as possible.
Supervisors approved a slightly changed version of the letter that specifies that the project is “proposed” at this point and will go through a thorough review process.
Supervisors also directed staff to explore options for a Joint Powers Authority or other agency to administrate Samoa Peninsula infrastructure improvements.