In the last decade, it was discovered that many of the abandoned coal mines in southern West Virginia held a surprisingly high quality resource: water. Now, the state is using these underground springs to spawn a new industry—raising fish. Erika Celeste of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.
CURWOOD: Mountaintop removal may be the latest method to get to coal, but over the years the more traditional way has been to dig underground. And in West Virginia there are thousands of underground mines that have been abandoned. Some of those mines opened up springs, and are now being tapped as freshwater supplies for fish farms. Erika Celeste of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.
CELESTE: Hidden deep in the hills of West Virginia, down a winding mountain road, along a forgotten dusty trail, next to an abandoned coal mine, is a most unexpected site. There in the middle of nowhere looms a giant glass structure, like something from outer space. This is Lillybrook Trout Farm.
Even more unusual than the farm itself is the source of its water. Project manager Matt Monroe says Lillybrook trout are raised in water bubbling up from an aquifer in the old coal mine.
MONROE: I think people get the image of the fish running through the coal mines, but it's actually, gravity flows out of the ground. Actually, we run it through some aeration and some nitrogen stripping towers, and then we run it down into our building through our fiberglass tank system.
CELESTE: A short walk around the hatchery leads to the mouth of the mine, and the elaborate system that gathers, purifies, and aerates the water. The water is then piped inside to a series of large, round tanks, ranging in size from 10,000 gallons to 28,000 gallons. That's where the fish are raised. The mine behind Lillybrook closed in the 1950s, after the coal ran out. Steve Miller, director of operations for the state's Department of Agriculture, says it would take another 40 years to realize the mine held another valuable resource.
MILLER: This water kept boiling out of the mines. And they're always looking for some way to use that land that's not used anymore. Their research showed that the water was clean enough and cold enough to sustain a trout operation. That gave them a good opportunity.
CELESTE: Most mines have a high sulfur content, which produces high sulfur water, which is toxic to fish. But southern West Virginia's coal mines are unique because they have low sulfur content. Project manager Matt Monroe says that, and the water temperature, make it a high quality resource.
MONROE: The temperature of it is one of the, probably, top points. Some of the other places that raise rainbow trout in the other states use a lot of surface water, which, basically, in the summer months, really warms up and it's real hard on the trout. There's low oxygen levels. The thing about this water being underground, it's basically the same temperature all year around, 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
CELESTE: Water from the southern coal mines has been so ideal for raising fish that now 17 farms in West Virginia use the source. Most are raising rainbow trout, but a few are experimenting with other types of fish. One farm, for example, is experimenting with Arctic Char, which is often used for sushi. Monroe says he's pleased with the results.
MONROE: We're making very good use of post-mining land. We're using the water in an efficient way to raise farm-raised fish that are high quality. And they're very fresh because we bring them straight from our farms, right to the processing plant.
CELESTE: Once processed, Lillybrook fish is sold to grocery stores, restaurants, and resorts. Monroe says they produce 40,000 pounds of fish a year, with sales around $200,000. Last year, statewide fish farms produced 115,000 pounds of fish, with sales around $580,000. That's down 30 percent from the previous year, but similar to the rest of the country's fish farms. Still, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglas is optimistic that the industry holds greater statewide potential.
DOUGLAS: We can get up to a million pounds of production here without too much problem at all. We are always looking at resources and seeing if we can make a dollar out of it. And I have looked at southern West Virginia, I've looked at coal mining, and I think with planning this is the future of West Virginia.
CELESTE: Douglas estimates that the new industry will bring in as much as five million dollars a year in the future. Though the industry isn't providing a lot of full-time jobs right now, he believes that will change as the farms grow. And state agriculture officials say more jobs could be on the way, as other industries related to fish spring up. They also say that the over-harvesting of wild fish populations in the oceans could open up new commercial markets abroad, creating an even greater potential for West Virginia's southern coal mining region.
For Living On Earth, I'm Erika Celeste, in Lego, West Virginia.
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