Just before Christmas Mingo County and the town of Kermit learned the two were going to be the joint recipients of a $3.6 million aquaponics facility that, when constructed in Kermit at First Burning Creek, potentially could represent a mini-boon to both the county and town.
During Kermit’s regularly scheduled council meeting Monday evening, council members and local residents were provided a few more details about the project by officials at the agencies heading up the facility’s construction.
These officials included Mingo County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Leasha Johnson, Refresh Appalachia President Ben Gilmer, Nathan Hall with Coalfield Development’s Reclaim Appalachia and facility Project Manager Fritz Boettner.
Citing funding for the project was specifically made possible by the 2016 Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Program and the DEP, Johnson pointed out that the venture was the result of “a very unique funding opportunity that Congressman Evan Jenkins had helped secure.”
She said when operational the facility will provide several jobs, training, and additional employment opportunities for area residents. She additionally noted that the Kermit project is a joint effort on the parts of the MCRA, Coalfield Development Corporation, and the Refresh Appalachia Project.
The 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.
Gilmer explained that the aquaponics facility is an extension of Refresh Appalachia, which among other Coalfield Development projects seeks to provide workforce development, education, personal development, and economic diversification. He said Refresh Appalachia is a component that focuses on the development, promotion, and sale of agriculture products in Southern West Virginia.
Gilmer said because the aquaponics facility will produce fresh vegetables and fish (tilapia) after it becomes fully operational, the facility technically falls under the Refresh Appalachia division of Coalfield Development.
He said the aquaponics project in essence is a process by which warm water fish are raised onsite and whose waste products are then used as fertilizer for the growth of fresh produce, which is grown in the water.
The production of both fish and vegetables, which will be marketed locally and regionally, will be grown in a facility that will be heated and cooled by the geothermal energy produced by the nearby abandoned underground mine.
The 20,000 facility will utilize about two acres of land and with the use of solar technology will produce about 150 kilowatts of solar power, which ideally will provide nearly all of its power needs, he added.
“We’re sort of in the early stages of designing the facility ... figuring out exactly where the building is going to go and so forth,” he said. “But we hope to be up and running by the end of this year.”
Gilmer said everything raised at the facility will be sold to various markets, which could include local retailers as well as hotels and restaurants in some of the region’s larger cities. He said the key to selling the products in the larger markets is to raise enough of them to meet the demand.
While he expressed his enthusiasm for and gratitude over Kermit being chosen as the site for the facility, council member Dr. J. W. Endicott wanted to know why the town wasn’t notified of the proposed project until it was announced to the general public.
“I’m really excited about the project, but it seems the communication with the town was really bad, I thought,” Endicott said. “The mayor only found out the night before and the town council didn’t know anything about it until he informed us about it. Again, I’m really excited about the project, but why was it so top secret?”
Johnson explained that funding agency officials mandated that no communication about the project be made public until these officials were ready to release a formal announcement.
Boettner said officials are optimistic that all the preliminary design and engineering work will be completed in three months. He said this pre-construction work will preferably produce a facility that can be modified should it become necessary in the future.
He said some the facility’s construction will be performed by local contractors, with other construction needs being let out for bid.
“Where we are in the process right now is we’re going through planning and design,” he said. “We’ve contacted an engineering company that’s coming up tomorrow to address some of the issues we have with the property.
“At the same time we’re moving forward with some of the geo-technical assessments to see how things can be configured there ... sort of the specifications for the design, such as how many tanks we can have, how big can the greenhouse be, and so forth.”
Gilmer said once operational, local workers will be hired to staff the facility and that these jobs will be advertised via different sources.