Christmas came a couple of days early for Mingo County last week. At least that’s how U.S. Congressman Evan Jenkins referred to it when he stood before a crowd of state and local officials and announced that Mingo County had just been selected as the recipient of a $3.6 million grant via the 2016 Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Program.
Jenkins noted that, just hours before, Mingo County had been awarded nearly $4 million to construct an aquaponics facility on abandoned mine land in Kermit and that when completed will provide around 12 badly-needed jobs.
Officials say the facility will also provide training and employment opportunities for many others in Mingo, Wayne and surrounding counties, including but not limited to displaced coal miners.
The Mingo County project was one of six in West Virginia that will share $30 million in AML Pilot Project money that the federal government authorized under the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
The money derives from the U.S. Treasury, which in time will allocate $90 million that ultimately will be divvied up between the economically hardest hit coal states — West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.
Officials said the primary goal of the funding is to “accelerate remediation of AML sites that have the potential to boost the local economy in historic coal regions which have been hard hit by the industry’s decline.”
The aquaponics facility will be constructed on five acres at First Burning Creek. Officials say the structure will use geothermal energy from the portal of nearby former Burning Spring Collieries, a former underground mine in Kermit where 11 area miners were killed in an explosion in 1951.
Aside from an immediate employment and training source for the county, officials say that, when operational, the 20,000-square-foot aquaponics facility and training center will provide 150 kilowatts of solar power, provide healthy and fresh food for local and regional consumers, and represent a model that can be implemented in other coalfield communities.
The announcement of Mingo County’s award came last Thursday at the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority office in East Williamson.
“Right now we have a long list of honey-do Christmas lists to work on and I know you’re all incredibly busy, but it’s an exciting time because we come with a wonderful Christmas gift for the people of southern West Virginia and Mingo County,” Jenkins said at the beginning of the announcement.
Jenkins said the aquaponics facility represents a continued effort to diversify the economy and to act as a supplement to the coal industry—not replace it.
“We’re seeing coal trains and coal trucks moving again ... coal’s running again in southern West Virginia, more so than it has in a long time, and we’re going to keep fighting for coal each and every day,” he said. “I am a firm believer that coal has a future. But we also need to create job opportunities by diversifying our economy. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can do both at the same time.”
“This is not about giving up on coal ... but we also want to make investments in good ideas.”
Jenkins said he and Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers are currently attempting to get the Reclaim Act passed in Congress which would bring $1 billion dollars to coal-impacted states. He said he’s optimistic that the $30 million dollars announced last week will be “a down payment” on a greater amount of funding for a host of future projects.
“Just yesterday it was announced where this first money will be going,” he said. “We’ve got another $30 million allotment in the current fiscal year’s budget, so we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
MCRA Executive Director Leash Johnson said the Kermit project is a joint effort on the parts of the MCRA, Coalfield Development Corporation, and the Refresh Appalachia Project.
“In accordance with the AML Pilot criteria, this project represents the very best of environmental reuse and economic development,” she said. “The Mingo County Redevelopment Authority is extremely grateful for the opportunity to develop this project that promotes long-term examples of development initiatives.
“(The project) really wouldn’t have been possible without Congressman Jenkins’ vision and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and it’s abandoned mine division.”
Johnson said preliminary work on the project is now underway.
“We’re planning to complete the site assessment by February or March, design and bid the facility by May, and begin construction by June or July,” she said. “We’re hoping to be operational by spring of 2018. It’s an aggressive design and construct work plan, but we’re hoping to make every effort to stay on this tight timeline.”
Because the abandoned mine land at First Burning Creek is expansive, Kermit Mayor Charles Sparks believes the aquaponics project could ultimately lead to other development on the property.
“This particular facility doesn’t represent a lot of employment at first, but we believe that this will greatly change as we go forward,” Sparks said this week at the proposed site. “We’re all very optimistic that it will lead to even more development on the site in the future and bring many more businesses and jobs not only to the county, but obviously to Kermit as well.”