BUCKSPORT — A bill filed last month on behalf of Governor Janet Mills would exempt land-based aquaculture facilities from certain state building and energy codes, as is afforded to buildings that house livestock or harvested crops.
The bill, LD 1473, was filed on April 14, and aims to bring the land-based aquaculture industry, including Whole Oceans, a land-based Atlantic salmon farm that is currently in the design stages, in line with the agricultural regulations.
The company is revamping the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport and planned to install several large salmon tanks inside of a metal building on the site. The $180 million project could eventually produce as much as 20,000 metric tons of salmon annually.
As the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code is currently written, the facility would need an elaborate and expensive sprinkler system that is not necessary given the nature of the use of the building, said Charlene Williams, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.
The department worked with the state Fire Marshal’s Office to present the Governor with a bill that would exempt the aquaculture industry from these standards in an attempt to help the burgeoning industry continue to grow.
“This exemption would bring the aquaculture industry into alignment with the agricultural industry, which, as I understand it, exempts buildings that house livestock from MUBEC,” Williams wrote.
The bill has been referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, but a hearing date had not been scheduled as of April 28.
Only buildings strictly used for aquaculture, such as the ones storing the tanks, would fall under the exemption, Williams said. Other buildings, such as a company office, would not qualify.
If passed, the legislation would help Whole Oceans proceed with its designing of those buildings, said Michael Thompson, the company’s senior project coordinator.
“The MUBEC code was introduced and then afterwards it was amended to exempt buildings that house livestock and harvested crops,” he said. “And in our world, salmon are livestock.”
Thompson noted that these buildings would still need to adhere to plumbing, fire and electrical codes, as well as workplace safety regulations.
The cost of the project would be driven up if the building storing the water tanks was held to the same air handling and sprinkler standards that an office or a hospital would need to meet, he said.
The legislation is an emergency bill and would go into effect as soon as it is approved. If the bill takes multiple sessions, it could create a bottleneck for the Whole Oceans design process.
If passed, the bill would benefit the entire industry, not just this project, according to Thompson.
“We’re in favor of it for our project and for other projects, particularly small ones that come along and really want to get a toehold in this aquaculture space,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the bill doesn’t have any opponents.
Amy Grant, the president of Upstream Watch, a Midcoast watershed advocacy group, warned that this bill could put undue stress on municipalities that have to oversee these facilities.
“Making sure building projects meet basic building and energy codes is crucial to avoid emergencies, and protect the safety and health of workers, the larger community and the environment,” she said. “They must not be sidestepped, especially when Governor Mills is so adamant about creating good jobs and tackling climate change.”
She argued that these buildings are not simple barns for holding cows or crops, but much more complicated and deserved to fall under the code.
In Bucksport, the project has broad support from the town, said Town Manager Susan Lessard. She wasn’t against the bill but wanted to know for the sake of her code enforcement officer what the new standard would be.
The town had previously spoken to Whole Oceans about the issue and the bill wasn’t a surprise. The business recently bought the last remaining lot on the old paper mill property and is largely done with the permitting process at the state and local level, Lessard said.
She just wanted to know what set of standards the town should be applying.
“It’s not because we’re negative about this,” she said. “That’s just the question: if MUBEC doesn’t apply, what does?”