Appalachian Salmon planning RAS using defunct West Virginia coal mine

Appalachian Salmon Founder and CEO Austin Caperton at the site of his proposed salmon RAS

In the mountains of the U.S. state of West Virginia, defunct coal mines dot the landscape near towns that have suffered from country's shift to new energy sources.

For decades, miners extracted millions of tons of coal from the region, leaving behind underground voids that still exist to this day. Over time, those defunct mines have filled with billions of gallons of water – creating a new resource that Appalachian Salmon Founder and CEO Austin Caperton told SeafoodSource is waiting to be tapped into.

“We have one of the most-valuable resources in the world, which is billions of gallons of pure fresh cold water stored as groundwater,” he said.

Caperton founded Appalachian Salmon intending to tap into that resource for a salmon recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). His initial plan is to start with a roughly USD 80 million (EUR 76 million) facility that can produce 2,500 metric tons of salmon each year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caperton said the first thing many people ask when they hear about his plan to farm salmon with water from a coal mine is “Well, isn’t that water really dirty?”

“The answer to that question is no, not all of it. In the southern part of the state, the geological conditions here, we don’t have a lot of sulfur content in the coals,” he said. “That’s the primary polluter of coal mine water is the sulfur content, and other parts of the world – northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois – are high sulfur coals and that’s where you see the horror stories of the acid mine drainage.”

Where Caperton plans to situate the salmon RAS – the site of the former Maple Meadow Mine in Fairdale, West Virginia, in the state’s southeast – the geology is different. In fact, water from the mine has been pumped into creeks since 1972, and federal standards require mines adhere to strict water monitoring, meaning Caperton has decades of water quality as proof of the water's purity.

“The records are there. Millions of samples of this water, and very seldom is it treated, it’s just pumped straight into the creek. It’s actually cleaner than the water that’s in the creek,” he said.

Caperton is no stranger to coal mines. His great-grandfather started in the coal industry in the mid-1870s, and founded a coal company in the small town of Slab Fork, near Fairdale. Caperton became the fourth generation of his family to run the coal company as a mining engineer before that mine eventually ran out of coal in the early 1980s. But Caperton hopes he doesn't have to travel far for his next job – the planned site of the RAS is, as the crow flies, just a few miles from where he was born in Slab Fork.

As a mining engineer, Caperton has become a professional in dealing with water, though in the past, he was typically trying to move it in a different direction than he will be farming salmon.

“The biggest nemesis in my life used to be water, and now it’s going to be my best friend,” Caperton said.

According to Caperton, the site Appalachian Salmon has under option contains an estimated four billion gallons of water, and replenishes at a rate of three million gallons a day. Within a 20-mile radius, there’s other mines with as much as 100 billion gallons of water in reserve.

“It is just sitting there,” Caperton said.  

Caperton also understands the environmental laws in West Virginia – he served as the cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection from January 2017 through January 2020. That experience, he said, gave him a good understanding of the permitting needed to set up a salmon RAS. Using water from an underground source simplifies the permitting process, he said, allowing Appalachin Salmon to avoid a hurdle that has tripped up other aspring land-based aquaculture companies looking to set up operations in the U.S.

“Most people don’t know this, but ‘waters of the United States’ does not include groundwater. So in this situation, we’re not forced to deal with the Army Corps of Engineers or [Environmental Protection Agency] Section 404 permits,” Caperton said. “We only deal with the state authority, except for a small sewage treatment plant we’ll have for office waste.”

Appalachian Salmon's intake and discharge plan will use water from the mine, and then discharge treated water back underground.

“Not only do you take it out of the mine and use it in the plant, you then clean it and reinject it at a different location, so you’re not doing any damage to the groundwater,” Caperton said.

Because no volumes of waters are being discharged directly into “waters of the United States,” the permitting process for the RAS will be much simpler, Caperton said.

Which isn't to say the project won't face challenge. The Appalachian Salmon site has challenging geography for building and transportation, and its industrial base has withered as the coal industry has declined. Since 2008, the southern part of West Virginia area has lost 7,000 direct mining jobs and another 50,000 jobs in related supporting industries.

“Coal mining is a shadow of its former self in the whole United States. West Virginia has not been immune to that," Caperton said. “Southern West Virginia needs jobs, and there’s not much new here – other than rais[ing] fish."

Caperton is still working on funding the project. Appalachian Salmon has been awarded a USD 5 million (EUR 4.7 million) grant from the state of West Virginia, and Caperton said he’s managed to generate some interest in the project from private investors, including a few with previous investments in U.S. aquaculture. So far, the project has 10 investors. 

Appalachian Salmon scored a victory when Larry Ingalls, the former president of Northern Harvest – which was purchased by Mowi in 2018 – joined its board of directors. Additionally, Caperton said other well-known industry experts are actively helping with advice and consultation.

Getting the facility built won't be easy, Caperton acknowledged, but he said once it's built, he's confident he'll be able to tap into the market for salmon in the U.S. – especially considering West Virginia is within one day’s drive of 60 percent of the U.S.

“One of the things that gives me the greatest hope is, I can’t tell you how many contacts I’ve made and how many different people I’ve talked to in every sector – all the way from people that have funding to people who were in the business to people who have expertise as engineers or designers," Caperton said. "Not one person has told me I’m crazy."

Photo courtesy of Austin Caperton


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