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Company To Build Salmon Farm At Site Of Shuttered Verso Paper Mill

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Ben Willauer, director of corporate development for Whole Oceans, speaks with reporters Friday as he stands in front of the former Verso Paper Co. in Bucksport where Whole Oceans plans to build its new $250 million salmon farm.

The site of the former Verso Paper Co. in Bucksport, which shut its doors four years ago, will be home to an entirely new business.

Whole Oceans has reached an agreement to acquire more than 120 acres of the site and build a $250 million land-based salmon farm. The company says it plans to use water from the Penobscot River, and has developed an advanced water filtering system to remove any contaminants left behind by industry.

Unlike the global market for paper, farmed salmon appears to have a predictably solid future. Portland-based who oceans says that it has presold its product for the next ten years.

“Here at the Bucksport mill, we will be growing Atlantic salmon from the egg stage right through full grow-out,” says Ben Williauer, director of corporate development for the Portland-based company, which expects to fill up to 60 positions at the new facility. “It’ll be sold as what’s called, head-on, gutted. We’ve actually presold 100 percent of our production capacity for the next 10 years.”

Williauer says financing in place to begin the $70 million first phase of what eventually will become a $250 million operation that will eventually add hundreds of new jobs in Bucksport. The facility will incorporate recirculating aquaculture systems that he says will not adversely affect land, air or water quality.

Whole Oceans plans to take most of its water for fish production from Silver Lake in Bucksport and from the Penobscot River, which remains contaminated with mercury deposits near the site of a former chemical plant in Orrington. But Willauer says Whole Oceans has developed a plan to filter the water for contaminants.

“Should the Penobscot have any accident at all, we are able to store and once our system is up and running, our entire system recirculates 95 percent of the water inside the system, so we are not flushing our system everyday — that is not at all what we do,” he says.

When the company reaches full production at the site, it expects to sell more than 50,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon annually and more than triple its initial 60-person workforce. That’s welcome news for a community that watched nearly 550 papermaking jobs disappear a little more than three years ago when Verso Paper Co. closed its Bucksport operations.

“It’s like an answer to a prayer,” says Susan Lessard, Bucksport’s town manager.

Lessard describes the arrival of Whole Foods as the culmination of a redevelopment plan that began within days of the Verso closure. American Iron and Metal of Montreal, or AIM, purchased the mill for $60 million and she says it was the removal of the old mill structure that helped to change the mindset in town, and open the door for future use.

“AIM had purchased the property, AIM worked with the town on deconstruction which really helped the town to get over it,” Lessard said. “As it came down, it wasn’t going to be a mill again, it was going to be something else. So, nobody was waiting for that site to save the community. The plan was that the town would continue to have an industrial base.”

Others, including Bucksport Economic Development Director Rich Rotella, credit the personal approach that Whole Oceans has taken in bringing the salmon farm project to the community of Bucksport.

“I know Whole Oceans as Rob and Ben,” Rotella said. “It’s taken partnerships to get Bucksport where it is today.”

The Whole Oceans Bucksport project is expected to break ground this fall, following the announcement of a similar facility 20 miles away. Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, says it will invest half a billion dollars in its new salmon farm in Belfast.

This story was originally published Feb. 26, 2018 at 5:09 p.m. ET.