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Mining Fresh Water for Aquaculture

by Carl Hoffman

It is a remarkable journey by any measure: The five-millimeter-long fish wiggling in a West Virginia hatchery came from eggs spawned in the icy clear waters of Canada's Yukon Territory. The waters they hatched into were also cool and clear—and they came from a Mingo County coal mine. Cool, clear waters from a coal mine? "We aerate the water," says Tina Savage, manager of the Mingo County Fish Hatchery. "It flows from the coal mine by gravity to the incubator and the tanks. We hardly even use any electricity."

Opened in June 2000, and owned by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, the hatchery mates an abundant yet underused West Virginia resource—coal-mine water discharge—with one of the fastest-growing segments of the world economy: the aquaculture industry. "The United States is the number-two seafood market in the world, and only number ten in aquaculture [production]," says Joseph Hankins, program director of the Shepherdstown, West Virginia–based Freshwater Institute. "Our seafood trade deficit is $6.5 billion, second only to petroleum in terms of natural goods. We're looking at one of the greatest marketing opportunities ever."

It's a marketing opportunity Appalachia, abetted by the Freshwater Institute and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), hopes to cash in on. "We've been totally dependent on coal," says Mike Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, "and we've got to find new jobs and a new tax base if we're going to continue to live here."

Dedicated to the conservation and efficient use of water resources, the nonprofit Freshwater Institute, launched by the Conservation Fund, conducts research and develops programs in such areas as the cleaning of mine water discharge, rural wastewater treatment, and energy-and water-efficient commercial-scale aquaculture, all from its 100-acre farm and research facility in Shepherdstown. Other programs include aquaculture outreach and training for businesses, researchers, and communities; a high school aquaculture education program with learning labs in West Virginia and Alabama; and an investment fund to help fuel sustainable natural-resource-based enterprises in West Virginia's economically distressed counties.

But it is the research and development—and then transfer into the business community—of efficient aquaculture systems ideally suited to West Virginia and its Appalachian neighbors for which the institute is best known. "On our staff of about 35 we've got everything from engineers to veterinarians to microbiologists to specialty fabricators, and most of what they do is related to aquaculture," Hankins says.

Cutting-Edge Research

Indeed, though fish farming may be a potential marketing bonanza, there is nothing simple about doing it consistently on a commercial scale. Thousands of fish in a small area require vast amounts of fresh water and energy, can pollute equally vast amounts of water, and are susceptible to disease. And growing the meatiest fish in the least amount of time is a complex genetic and biological puzzle.

In the simplest traditional aquaculture systems, like those used on giant catfish farms in Alabama and Mississippi, thousands of fish swim in open, warm-water ponds. Lots of water goes into the ponds, and lots of waste comes out, a process that is neither particularly efficient nor evironmentally friendly. Trout, commonly farmed cold-water fish, are often farmed in raceways built adjacent to fast-running streams. But not only can the water flow of natural streams vary considerably, there is also the problem of waste discharge into an otherwise pristine stream.

But in the Freshwater Institute's biologically secure indoor research laboratory, about 48,000 arctic char swim in three fiberglass tanks, each 12 feet in diameter. A tangle of pipes snake around and under the tanks, and the sound of running water is omnipresent as engineers and scientists work. The facility being tested uses cutting-edge technology, and it's perfect for places like West Virginia, which is close to the huge East Coast seafood market but lacks the warm water and large open spaces typical of southern fish farms.

The arctic char being researched live in relatively small indoor tanks in an environment free from outside pathogens and predators. Only a small amount of new water flows into the system; most is recirculated after being separated from fish excrement and excess food. The process cuts down on the amount of water used even as it reduces the treatment costs and quantity of effluent being released. Ultrasound transponders measure the amount of uneaten food in the water, precisely regulating the amount of food fed to the fish, reducing waste in the water, and growing the fish more efficiently. And the whole research facility is on a commercial scale.

"The Freshwater Institute is one of few places," says Michael Timmons, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell University, "that does indoor water-recirculating research on a commercial scale."

Most important of all, though, to farm fish, you need plenty of water. West Virginia and most of Appalachia have water in abundance, from an unusual source: coal mines. In 1994, with a grant from ARC, the institute undertook a study to examine the possibility of using mine water discharge for aquaculture.

Every time a coal mine is drilled, water floods in. While some of that water discharge is highly acidic, especially in the northern part of West Virginia, billions of gallons, largely in the southern part of the state, are clear, drinkable, free of pathogens, and perfectly chilled to suit the needs of high-value cold-water fish. And because of Environmental Protection Agency reporting requirements, each mine already has a long and detailed water history. The institute's 1994 study estimated that using 60 percent of suitable mine water discharge for aquaculture could generate 569 jobs and $32 million over ten years, with the majority of jobs being created in the communities hardest hit by the decline of the coal industry.

Half a Million Fish a Year

The Mingo County Fish Hatchery, one of the institute's biggest projects yet, was undertaken as a result of that study and ongoing research into efficient aquaculture systems. Using water from an abandoned section of an active coal mine, a water system designed by the Freshwater Institute, and a hatchery manager trained by the institute (with the help of an ARC grant), the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority built an arctic char hatchery designed to hatch over half a million fish a year. After growing five to seven inches long, the char will be transferred to grow-out farms (again, designed by the institute) owned and operated by West Virginia Aqua, a private consortium of local mining and land companies hoping to hit it big in fish farming.

"We're always looking for ways to diversify away from traditional mining," says Greg Wooten, vice president and chief engineer of Dingess-Rum Properties, a landholding company and one of the two main partners of West Virginia Aqua, "and we believe the potential is unlimited. We've studied the aquaculture industry and think we can make money. We see several grow-out facilities supplied from the hatchery and using the extensive sources of excellent mine water throughout southwest West Virginia. If we're successful this will be an important part of the economy in the state, especially because we're positioned close to such a large population. We've invested well in excess of $1 million, and the institute has helped us every step of the way."

Says Mingo County's Mike Whitt: "Ultimately we'd like to see grow-out farms throughout the neighboring counties, employing 100 people or so."

The Freshwater Institute isn't just concerned with cold-water arctic char or big operations like Mingo County's, however. Its demonstration projects, technologies, and expertise are fueling commercial fish farms throughout the Appalachian Region. In New York, the institute helped Cornell Professor Michael Timmons design a filtration system for Fingerlakes Aquaculture, a tilapia farm he founded in 1996. Fingerlakes now has the capacity to produce one million pounds of tilapia a year and employs about ten people.

In Pocahontas County, West Virginia, the institute is helping entrepreneur Michael Williams create a small yellow-perch hatchery. "There's a 100-million-pound demand for yellow perch and just a 17-million-pound harvest, so there's an incredible market," says Williams, a retired gemologist who is planning to export fish he raises in a high-tech recirculating system designed by the institute. The trouble, as Williams readily admits, is that "raising fish isn't easy, and there are all sorts of complicated issues. But I feel like I have a big brother up there in Shepherdstown. I've been up there, they've been down here, and any time I have a problem they tell me what I can do to fix it."

And on a farm in Tallmansville, West Virginia, the institute helped Donnie Tenney create the ultimate in aquaculture efficiency. The warm water in which Tenney's tilapia swim and grow is pumped from the fish tanks to beds nurturing basil, rosemary, and cucumber, then drained, filtered, and recirculated to the tilapia. The hybrid aquaculture-hydroponics system, dubbed aquaponics, uses pumps, aerators, greenhouse lights, and fans all powered by natural gas from an abandoned gas well. "Having such a low-cost energy source makes Tenney much more profitable and competitive," says the Freshwater Institute's Hankins. He pauses, surveying the thousands of arctic char swimming far from their natural home in the institute's laboratory. "Technology transfer," he says, "that's our goal."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.