A proposal by Quinlan Brothers Limited to construct a full-scale chitin/chitosan production facility adjacent to its sprawling crab and shrimp processing plant in Bay de Verde has vaulted a significant hurdle.
But the same proposal that was so vociferously opposed in Old Perlican - just 12 kilometres away - several years ago also has its share of critics in Bay de Verde.
The seven-member Bay de Verde municipal council voted 4-3 to grant approval-in-principle to the project at a March 3 council meeting, with Mayor Gerard Murphy casting the deciding vote in favour of the application.
Also supporting the application were deputy mayor Gordon Coish and councillors Gerard Broderick and Carrie Potter.
Three councillors opposed the motion: Jennie Riggs, Louis Keats and Juanita Emberley.
The council vote followed a lively public meeting at the town hall on Feb. 23 in which some 60 people attended to hear from representatives of the company.
Mayor Murphy chaired the meeting, and said there were questions about air emissions, the discharge of effluent into the marine ecosystem, and the transport and use of chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and potassium hydroxide, two important chemicals in the chitin production process.
There were also concerns expressed about some ongoing issues, including odour problems and the ongoing dumping of shell waste at a local site.
"There was a thorough discussion of the upside and the downside," said Murphy.
Murphy was initially apprehensive about the project, but after receiving more information, has warmed up to the idea.
"I greet this application with cautious optimism," he said. "If the company is willing to come in and make a multi-million-dollar investment into a technology that is new in the province ... that investment, given the volatility of the fishing industry, can only lead to an extended longevity of the facility in the community."
"That was one of the biggest considerations that I had to think about," he added.
Acid cause for concern
But the roughly $5 million project is still far from receiving the green light, with environmental approvals still to come, and some community leaders still not convinced the project is in the best interest of the town.
Coun. Jennie Riggs opposes the application, and believes a majority of residents are also opposed.
She wants council to hold a plebiscite, so every resident can have a say.
The community is nestled in a bowl-like harbour, with only one road leading in and out. Riggs said people are worried that in the event of a catastrophic event at the new plant, escape would be difficult.
"If anything happens to this acid, people down in the harbour are stuck there. It's not a gamble I want to take," said Riggs.
The company has offered reassurances that all safety measures will be taken, but that's not enough for Riggs. She said no system is perfect.
"The people are scared. It's this acid," she added.
A second attempt
This issue has been talked about on the Bay de Verde Peninsula for several years.
In early 2008, the St. John's-based company was awarded up to $2.4 million under ACOA's Atlantic Innovation Fund in order to conduct research and development into the processing of chitin and chitosan, which are natural derivatives of shrimp and crab shell waste.
This natural material is used in, among other things, water treatment systems, drilling fluids for the oil and gas sector, as well as the cosmetics industry.
At the time, the total estimated cost of the project was $6.5 million.
The company initially proposed the establishment of the plant in Old Perlican, where it also operates a seafood processing facility. The old Riff's store on Route 80 was identified as the optimal site.
Then environment minister Charlene Johnson, the MHA for Trinity-Bay de Verde, approved the environmental preview report in March 2009.
I greet this application with cautious optimism. If the company is willing to come in and make a multi-million-dollar investment into a technology that is new in the province ... that investment, given the volatility of the fishing industry, can only lead to an extended longevity of the facility in the community. - Bay de Verde Mayor Gerard Murphy
But Old Perlican residents opposed the project, and the company temporarily shelved the idea
"The people didn't want it because of where it was going," said Old Perlican Mayor Harry Strong. "It was going in the centre of town, and they wanted to use the town sewer for its effluent outfall.
"Nobody could tell us if it was good or not," he added.
Strong wasn't mayor at the time, but was opposed to the project. He refused to comment on the application in Bay de Verde.
"They can stand on their own two feet," he said.
Company still assessing
Bay de Verde is one of the most active fishing ports in the province, with some 400-plus people from throughout the region working at the Quinlan Brothers processing plant during the season.
The company has operated in the community since the late 1960s.
Robin Quinlan, an executive with Quinlan Brothers Limited, said the company views the chitin plant as "another link in the chain" to ensure the long-term viability of the operation.
He admitted, however, the company is still not 100 per cent committed to the project, and described the venture as challenging.
"We want to make sure that if it's done, it's done right," Quinlan told The Compass last week, adding the company is still analyzing the project and plans to formalize a path forward in the coming months.
"This has been kicking around the boardroom table for some time," he added.
The company explained its plans in an environmental assessment document submitted to the Department of Environment and Conservation in April 2008.
It involved a partnership with the Marine Institute and Memorial University to "help turn this facility into one of the most efficient and technologically advanced chitin plants built to date."
The company described itself as this province's "largest processor of snow crab and shrimp," and explained that waste management had become a critical environmental and financial issue.
At the time, processing facilities in Old Perlican and Bay de Verde were producing over 13 million tonnes of shrimp byproduct waste annually.
The chitin and chitosan plant would redirect this waste into a marketable product and alleviate the waste disposal problem, the document explained.
The document noted that new technology proposed by the company would reduce the use of chemicals such as hydrochloric acid.
The document also outlined a long list of safety and training protocols, environmental and emergency contingency plans, and measures to be put in place to treat discharge from the plant.
The company anticipated the chitin plant, at full production, would create six full-time jobs and one to two others, as needed.
Quinlan told The Compass he's unaware of any similar operation in eastern Canada, and perhaps North America.
"We see this as the continuation of the processing operation. We don't see it as the utilization of waste," Quinlan explained.
As for the decision to not locate the plant in Old Perlican, Quinlan said it was "because of the economics involved." He said it makes more sense to establish the plant in Bay de Verde, where the raw material is being landed.
He described the Old Perlican option as "non-viable."
Editor's note: In next week's edition of The Compass, we examine the challenge in Bay de Verde of supplying a sufficient amount of fresh, quality water to its residents and the seafood processing facility.