CLAYPOOL HILL, Va. — A massive amount of dirt and rock is being moved to prepare a site in Tazewell County for a state-of-the-art aquaculture facility that will employ more than 200 people and produce fresh salmon for markets on the East Seaboard.
Pure Salmon, an international aquaculture company based in Abu Dhabi, is constructing the more than 750,000-sq.-ft. facility on about 200 acres of land beside Southwest Virginia Community College off Rt. 19 west of Claypool Hill.
It is the “world’s largest vertically integrated aquaculture facility,” the only one of its kind in the United States, and is slated to produce 20,000 tons of salmon per year.
The $228 million project, originally called Project Jonah, is eight years in the making and Paul Insk, project manager for Pure Salmon Virginia, said enough progress will be made by 2023 to start bringing in salmon eggs to begin the growing process that takes two years to bring the fish to the market.
Pure Salmon is “fully traceable from egg to plate.”
Insk, who has been involved in the project since January and hosted a tour of the site Thursday, said about 450,000 cubic yards of dirt has been moved so far with “well over a million” cubic yards moved when the site preparation work is complete. About 20,000 cubic yards of rock has been brought in primarily for the foundation.
Primary electrical meter installation is targeted by the end of this year and a direct access road to Rt. 19 should be complete in early 2022.
By 2023, enough progress will be made for the salmon eggs to be brought in, although work on other parts of the facility will continue and be finished before they are needed.
“It is not an overnight process,” he said of the time it takes to raise the salmon. “We are blending construction and fish growth. We will obviously ramp up as the fish get bigger and we need more space.”
Insk said said permanent employees will come on board before the eggs arrive to prepare for the work and be ready to go.
With the construction phase beginning soon, an important component for Insk is finding local vendors, a task he hopes to fulfill on Oct. 5.
“The big thing for us … is to talk about Oct. 5,” he said. “We are encouraging everybody in the Tazewell area and in Virginia to come out and say, ‘hey, this is what we do … can we help with the project?’’”
Insk said he is working on a portfolio of vendors that can be part of the construction phase of the project.
Included in the search are everything related to construction from general labor to electrical to equipment supply and rental.
More specialized work includes water process and utility tank erection and fabrication, and systems integration.
That event will be held near the track behind SVCC at the picnic pavilion from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“It is important for us to understand what capabilities the area has,” Insk said.
In the meantime, a lot of leveling is taking place at the site, with work almost around the clock during the summer.
When completed, the facility will be about 30 feet tall with different levels inside to handle the entire process, from growing to processing and packaging, ready for market.
Lala Korall, an assistant manager for Pure Salmon, said she and Insk are both based near the company’s Richmond office, but she has been with the project since its early stages that started in 2013 when Del. James W. “Will” Morefield took a trip to Israel to seek economic opportunities for the county.
“He thought the region needed something to diversify after the coal industry started dying off,” she said.
Korall said land-based aquaculture facilities over the years have become more and more accepted. The technology is environmentally friendly and clean, and this facility is an RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture System) where water is recirculated and nothing is wasted.
“It is completely indoors under roof, so when you look at it, it looks like any clean, regular industrial building,” she said, and it provides the complete process from eggs to mature salmon ready for market. “Everything will be here.”
Korall said Tom Lester, former Tazewell County supervisor who is now state Sen. Travis Hackworth’s chief of staff, was in on the project from the ground floor and was told the process would take 10 years to actually start operations, which turned out to be accurate.
There are many steps to take, including raising the money, she said, and everyone was aware of all that had to be done, which also involved working with Virginia Tech on validating the feasibility of the aquaculture facility.
Lester said when Morefield returned from his 2013 trip he asked Lester to work with the Virginia Israel Advisory Board.
“I was there the first night we talked about this project,” he said. “It was just a dream then. It really seemed farfetched that we could have the largest indoor aquaculture fish farm here in Tazewell County and the region.”
Lester was also at a meeting related to Virginia Tech’s feasibility study of the project in late 2013, which is where he met Korall.
“We were doing our due diligence to make sure it was something that could happen,” he said, adding that he was told by VT officials that “this project will change everything.”
Lester said that is when the process started to seek funding for the project, which eventually involved several entities, including the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and the Tobacco Commission, as well as being a regional project with Russell and Buchanan counties on board.
“We also had Virginia Tech as a partner on that and it meant a lot to us.” he said. “That let us know this was the real deal.”
Lester said Hackworth was part of a delegation from the county that traveled to other Pure Salmon facilities overseas to see for themselves how they operated and how clean they were as well as how the technology was being used.
They visited Pure Salmon facilities in Israel and Warsaw, Poland, and when they returned, “they were sold on it,” he said.
Lester said this is the largest of the facilities and one of the big advantages is to be able to bring fresh salmon to markets in less than 24 hours.
“That is a lot different than having it imported from overseas where it has to go through customs,” he said, adding that consumers are also not sure of exactly what they are getting regarding quality and nutrition.
With this facility, the quality will be the best, he added.
Lester said the economic impact on the area will be a “game changer,” with at least 2.5 jobs created for every job at the facility in support of the operation and its employees.
Tazewell County Administrator Eric Young said the project is bringing needed diversification to the region.
“It is also employment, good jobs, jobs that are not minimum wage,” he said. “That is the opportunity we have been looking for for a long time.”
Young said tax revenue will help Tazewell County as well Buchanan and Russell counties, which will be sharing the revenue in an agreement to work together to bring the facility to the region.
Other “spin off” industries will also move in, he said, to supplement the needed products and services to support the facility.
Young said with coal there was a constant up and down cycle, often hard to predict.
“But this is here,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere. I think the future is going to be aquaculture. There is only so much consumption wild species can support.”
Salmon is an extremely marketable fish, he said. “It’s a much healthier food. There are a lot of reasons that in the long term this kind of project will be successful.”
In fact, information provided by Pure Salmon said these salmon will be “heavier in protein, lighter in fat … and rich in omega-3 fatty acids.”
Young said Pure Salmon has been working with Virginia Tech to produce salmon that not only retain all of the nutrients of salmon in the wild but also to make them healthier because of the quality control of what they are fed and the water they live in.
“Unlike in the wild, you control everything,” he said. “You control the water they get, you control the oxygen in the water, the food, the sunlight, you control everything in the environment for the fish.”
Young said it will be a very sterile facility to keep anything unwanted out.
“it’s really a piece if the future,” he said of the plant. “That’s a good thing for our people in knowing there might be a place for us. Here, we can belong to the new world. We can be a part of it and participate in it.”
The facility will also bring attention from other industries that may want to locate in the area as well, he said, as the image of this region changes from being primarily coal country to part of that new world.
Young said it may be attractive to overseas industries that want to locate to a “safe and beautiful place.”
“I think it’s really exciting to be able to have this,” said Shanna Plaster, Northwestern District supervisor who also visited the site Thursday. “It can really add to Tazewell County, not only in revenue but other businesses as well.”
Plaster said it will also help make the county more marketable to other industries.
She is director of the Community in Schools program for the county and said it is something she can talk to students about when they are considering careers.
“This will be really exciting and give them something to look forward to … after graduation,” she said. “We can provide kids with the set of skills to work here.”
“It’s a great opportunity for our area,” said Andy Hrovatic, who is running unopposed for the Western District supervisor seat. “It will keep future generations working here, With the declining coal industry, we do need some other industries.”
Plaster said it will put Tazewell County on the map.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org