Proposal prompts Cohoe concerns

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

The rumors hit the proverbial fan in Cohoe this week.

Residents in the fishing community are asking if a business venture proposed for an old fish processing plant in their neighborhood is a golden opportunity or a stinker of an idea.

"We've got a lot of alarm from people who are afraid about what might be processed there," said Eric Olsen, manager of Kasilof Riverside Properties, a partnership that owns the plant under consideration.

Olsen and his group are discussing a possible lease with Nick Zorich Jr., an Oregon man who fishes seasonally in Cook Inlet.

"He is an inlet drifter himself. He knew we had the building and approached us about a lease," Olsen said.

The building in question is the former Whitney processing plant, near the mouth of the Kasilof River at the end of Ledoux Road off Cohoe Loop. It is currently a buying station for Snug Harbor Seafoods and for Seasonal Seafoods, a fishers' cooperative affiliated with Kasilof Riverside Properties and also managed by Olsen.

Zorich made first contact about the facility in the winter and expressed interest in converting it with new technology to process fish waste into feed for aquaculture, Olsen said.

But neighbors in the area are concerned that the proposed plant could bring in human sewage, pollute the Kasilof River and maybe aid and abet the mariculture industry threatening Alaska fisheries.

Cosmo Mercurio, a Cohoe resident and a former member of Seasonal Seafoods, is circulating an "alert" to to the Kasilof area community about the proposal. In the alert, he wrote that the plan includes carrying materials such as fish and human waste down the bumpy roads, storing them on the tidal flats and processing them into fertilizer and food pellets for farmed fish.

Mercurio said he got wind of the plan in May through his connections at Seasonal Seafoods and has become more and more alarmed as he has researched the proposal.

"I was a member of Seasonal Seafoods until I found out about their real estate plans," he said.

According to a list he furnished, the partners in Kasilof Riverside Properties are 13 fishers, most of whom live in or have links with Homer.

Mercurio criticized the way the negotiations have proceeded so far.

"It is my opinion from everything I have heard and seen so far that they were not intending to notify the community," he said. "Now we are trying to put together a little resistance group. ... The timing was somewhat interesting, too. They are trying to slip this in when everyone is busy."

Olsen played down the concerns.

"We are supportive of (Zorich's) efforts to make a marketable, useful product out of fish waste, which is his primary purpose," he said.

"He has no specific plans to move human waste."

Olsen said Zorich told him the process involved is odorless and has no effluent.

"He describes it as being completely inoffensive. ... You would never know it was there," Olsen said.

Olsen said no contract has been signed, and no work is planned at the site during this calendar year. His understanding is that the equipment would be manufactured in Europe and set up at three Alaska locations: Kasilof, Cordova and Dutch Harbor. The product would be pelletized fish food, perhaps for use at hatcheries.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that they had heard rumors about the project, but have not received any permit application. David Johnson, an environmental engineer with DEC in Soldotna, said the air or water discharges would require federal permits. Procedures for handling human waste and dealing with potential sewage spills are regulated by law as well, he said.

"We are not even sure what they want to do," he said of the Cohoe proposal.

Zorich, contacted at his Oregon home, declined to talk about his plans, saying it is too early to discuss specifics.

Olsen has set up a community meeting for Zorich to explain his project and answer questions. Zorich confirmed that he plans to attend, if he can get together the information he needs.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Seasonal Seafoods plant in Cohoe, although the location may be changed.

Olsen said some people are being alarmists and should give a promising technology a fair hearing.

"To us, this is a process that is overdue -- to make use of fish waste instead of grinding it up and putting it back in the sea," he said.

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