BUCKSPORT – It’s too soon to break out the dill and lemons, but the plan to grow Atlantic salmon in a land-based facility at the site of the former Verso paper mill took a big step forward Tuesday night.
The Bucksport Planning Board approved the site plan review application submitted by Whole Oceans for its proposed 1.4-million-square-foot development on the banks of the Penobscot River.
The application, covering 31 criteria outlined in Bucksport’s land use ordinance, encompassed a bound book more than two inches thick. The review and vote on what could eventually be a $180-million project were accomplished in less than 90 minutes.
The approval was conditioned on Whole Oceans obtaining a required Site Location of Development Permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and payment of the site plan application fee to the town. Whole Oceans has applied for the permit and delayed paying the fee until the town revises its fee schedule. The delay could mean an extra $17,000 for the town Luke Chiavelli, Bucksport’s new code enforcement officer, told Planning Board members.
The Whole Oceans plan calls for construction of three principal buildings and at least one ancillary building encompassing a total of 945,000 square feet. When complete, 1,372,000 square feet of the former mill site will have an impervious surface including buildings, sidewalks and parking areas.
Assuming the company gets the site location permit it needs from Maine DEP, Whole Oceans plans to begin earth work on the first 22 acres of the site in November, beginning with demolition of the former paper mill foundations and excavating for the foundation and underground piping and tanks needed for the first building planned.
The 90,000-square-foot “Freshwater Building” will house offices and the hatchery facility, where Atlantic salmon will be reared in fresh water over a period of about 10 months from tiny eggs to smolt ready to be transferred to salt water. Construction of the building is slated to begin next April and be completed by October 2020.
Once the hatchery building is complete, Whole Oceans intends to start construction on the first of two planned 350,000-square-foot saltwater “growout buildings,” each capable of raising 5,000 metric tons (11 million pounds) of Atlantic salmon annually from 5-inch smolts to 10- to 12-pound market size fish in giant tanks.
If Whole Oceans proves successful, the company plans to build a second growout building that will effectively double annual production to 10 million metric tons (22 million pounds).
According to the application, the finished Whole Ocean fish farm will use vast quantities of water.
Estimates call for the project to draw 14.5 million gallons of water per day from the Penobscot River and an additional 4 million gallons per day from Silver Lake for fish rearing activities. In addition, the company will use an estimated 4,800 gallons per day supplied by Maine Water Co. for “domestic” uses.
Company officials said that Whole Oceans had already received the required National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the Maine DEP allowing it to discharge up to 18.6 million gallons per day of treated wastewater back into the Penobscot River. That total doesn’t include any wastewater from fish processing operations.
On Tuesday afternoon, Whole Oceans CEO Jacob Bartlett announced that the company planned to build a separate facility in Bucksport’s Buckstown Industrial Park to process Atlantic salmon for the wholesale and retail markets within the next four years. Estimated costs for the processing plant range from $15 million to $20 million.
Once in operation, the salmon production and processing operations could employ as many as 150 workers. That number could grow to 250 if the second saltwater facility is built and achieves full production.
Bucksport site plan approvals are good for two years, but Whole Oceans asked the Planning Board to extend the approval period to five years, given the scope of the project. The Planning Board agreed. Chairman Brian MacDonald said the board could consider a further five-year extension if it was required for completion of the project.
The outcome satisfied Bartlett and the rest of the Whole Oceans crew at the meeting.
“I’m very pleased and very proud of my team,” Bartlett said after the meeting. “We’re ready to move on to the next phase and get started” with site preparation and construction once the Maine DEP approves the company’s pending site location permit.
“As soon as we receive it, we’re ready to go,” Bartlett said.