Mad River Union
SAMOA PENINSULA – Several months after announcing its intent to construct a $400 million aquaculture facility on the Samoa Peninsula, a Norwegian company has flagged water infrastructure and site contamination issues that could be “show stoppers.”
At the July 23 Board of Supervisors meeting, the company’s request for “financial incentives/funding” to address the issues was met with commitment to seek grant funding.
But the timing and success of that process is uncertain and the company’s board of directors will meet in September to decide whether or not to proceed with the project’s permitting.
The Nordic Aquafarms company seemed committed to constructing the land-based facility, which would produce 22,700 metric tons of gutted Atlantic salmon or steelhead per year and serve 50 million West Coast customers, when it first described its plans last February.
But in a PowerPoint presentation for supervisors, surface seawater and industrial freshwater supplied by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District are described as needing “rigorous treatment” to be suitable for aquaculture. And the 30-acre project site involves “Brownfield clean-up with unknown risks and costs.”
Nordic President Erik Heim told supervisors that the company’s board of directors will reach a “decision point” on the project in September and he grasped for information on the county’s plans for addressing the former Samoa pulp mill site’s challenges.
“The freshwater source does have its challenges in terms of turbidity and bacterial spikes during parts of the year,” he said, adding that it’s “not suitable for aquaculture and perhaps other types of activities dependent on water.”
Heim told supervisors that in addition to the infrastructure and contamination concerns, tsunami and earthquake mitigations compound the project’s risks and costs.
“What we are summing up, as a question here, is what the county’s plan is in terms of preparing the peninsula with necessary infrastructure for some of these kinds of activities,” he said.
In a public meeting in Eureka last May, the company’s commercial director said that the Humboldt County site is best possible choice on the entire West Coast. But county Economic Development Director Scott Adair said the site’s water delivery infrastructure will need millions of dollars – and possibly tens of millions of dollars – of investment before it can be used by Nordic or any other user of the site.
Adair noted that the infrastructure hasn’t been used or maintained since the pulp mill closed almost a decade ago. “The deferred maintenance costs would be in the several-million dollar range just to address immediate costs which need to occur throughout the entire infrastructure system,” he said.
The cost of upgrading the system to make it ready for commercial use would range from $16 million to $34 million, he continued.
The Samoa site is in Supervisor Virginia Bass’ district. She said that “the peninsula is on the verge of a rebirth and I think it’s really important to find a way to coordinate how we can help make this happen.”
Last June, supervisors approved forming a task force to address infrastructure issues related to economic development. That effort is just beginning and Supervisor Estelle Fennell referred to a letter from the Humboldt Bay water district that recommends collaboration with the county, the Harbor District, which owns the site, and Nordic to seek federal and state grant funding for infrastructure improvement.
“We can’t say right now that ‘we’re going to do this and that’ but I think we can indicate that we’re willing to work with you,” she said.
Supervisor Mike Wilson was a harbor district commissioner when the district took control of the pulp mill site several years ago and had 2.7 million gallons of stored toxins removed.
“I think this is not an unusual discussion that a community might have when you want to seek out economic development,” he said.
The community needs to be convinced that infrastructure and clean-up investments will “generally benefit the county and not just one company,” he continued.
Supervisors voted to have the county’s task force identify “funding and financing solutions” to the site issues and make a presentation to the board within 45 days.
Though not discussed in detail during the presentation, the Samoa site has many advantages. It’s previously developed, zoned for aquaculture, has an existing outfall pipe, is near water sources and is centrally located in the West Coast region Nordic is targeting.