The newest processing plant in Bristol Bay is about to go online this month. Trident Seafood’s multi-million dollar fishmeal plant should get a test run with Togiak herring. Trident agreed to build the plant as part of a 2011 settlement over alleged EPA Clean Water Act violations, and now the company, and residents, should get to see (and smell) it if works as intended.
Construction workers hammer and weld to the twang of country music as they wrap up construction on fishmeal plant in Naknek. The walls are still unfinished drywall and wooden stairs stand in for a future elevator.
Project Manager Bob Bates stood in front of the largest piece of machinery in the plant, a 50 foot long and 60,000 pound dryer.
“We actually set this unit here when this was still all mud and dirt. We build this building around this dryer,” said Bates.
The dryer looked like a giant rolling pin as it spun in the center of the warehouse.
“The inside of this thing looks like something out of a sci-fi movie with all the teeth and the blades and everything in it to mix it, and turn it, and churn it through,” added Bates.
About a quarter mile of tubing move all the leftover parts after a fish is filleted or canned – that’s the head, guts, fins, and bones – they’ll come from Trident’s processing plant to the new 15 million dollar plus fishmeal plant.
After being ground up and dried, the byproduct of salmon can become animal feed and even those fish oil pills you can buy at Costco. Trident also owns separate business that produces fishmeal products. Along with helping their business model, Trident agreed to build this plant as part of a 2011 settlement with the EPA, which had tallied a number alleged Clean Water Act violations against the company’s Alaska operations.
Officials at Trident said they weren’t required to build a fishmeal plant in Naknek, but they think this is where the Bristol Bay fishing industry is probably heading anyway. The EPA and Alaska’s DEC are tightening down on how processors handle the millions of pounds of fish waste that is traditionally ground up and put back in the water, hopefully washed out with the tides.
But some Naknek residents were, and still are, leery about having a fishmeal plant in town. They have a reputation of being …smelly.
Jay King runs an aviation service in Naknek and is among those still not convinced that plant won’t stink up the town. King’s not opposed to the plant so much as he’s opposed to its location.
“Being next to the Post Office, the school, the clinic, my brother’s apartment building. “I just didn’t think it was such a good idea to have a potential odor issue with all of these entities,” said King.
Others say with or without the new fishmeal plant, summertime odor is a common issue and comes with the territory. Russell Phelps is a commercial fisherman and said Naknek is a fishing town. He thinks taking waste out of the water might actually help the smell.
“So the beaches in late July and August stink considerable already, so if we could avoid that I’d be very happy,” said Phelps, who is also a member of the Borough Assembly.
Before the Borough gave its consent to Trident to build, a few members traveled to Newport, Oregon to tour a 20-year-old fishmeal plant that has been upgraded with modern technology similar to what’s being used in Naknek. They came back less skeptical. The Assembly heard from plenty of concerned residents, but in the end voted to approve the fishmeal plant. Some supporters think fishmeal may be the future of the fishery, and others appreciate what will be added tax revenue to the Borough. Phelps was among the yes votes.
“We shouldn’t stop a project just because we think it’s going to stink,” argued Phelps.
Trident has a favorable reputation in the town, and the seafood giant says it puts near a million dollars in taxes annually to the Borough, and tens of thousands more in charitable donations. Project Manager Bob Bates says Trident will do it what it takes to stay good neighbors with the community.
“From day one, the goal was to keep the odor down, clean up the river, and basically produce some meal,” said Bates.
And at the heart of its effort to keep the odor down is a new air filtration system.
Standing at the base of a three story metal tube with ducting that snakes around the entire warehouse, Bates describes how it will keep the smell of drying fish waste out of the breezy bayside town of Naknek.
“So basically what we are doing is we’re drawing fresh air down below and we are sucking everything up to insure that we capture all the odors and everything that comes through this facility and gets pushed through these scrubbers,” explained Bates.
Inside are thousands of scrubbing balls that look like whiffle balls, water is sprayed down as the air raises. The odor molecules stick to the water.
“By the time the air come back out of here, we’ve pulled the majority of all the odor out with this system,” added Bates.
Some residents like Jay King say they’ll just have to wait and see, or rather smell, what happens.
“Well, it’s here. I am just honestly hoping it is as advertised by Trident,” said King.
They’re going to get their chance soon. Trident plans to run final tests of the system with water in a few days, but as far as a true test with fish heads and guts. Bob Bates said he can build factories but he can’t control fish. They’ll test it for real when the Togiak herring arrive, probably before the month is out.