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AquaBounty puts Ind. facility up for sale, but vows to finish NW Ohio salmon farm

Posted By: The Toledo Blade on February 19, 2024.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

Though still not committing itself to a restart date, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies said it remains determined to finish construction of a massive, indoor salmon-rearing facility it has been trying to build inside the North Pioneer Industrial Park on the outskirts of this Williams County village.

It’s unclear how strong its finances are now, though.

The company announced Wednesday that it is putting its Albany, Ind., plant up for sale as part of “a wide range of financing alternatives to strengthen its balance sheet and increase its cash position.”

That plant has been growing the company’s genetically engineered salmon since 2019. It has been seen as a smaller-scale version of a land-based plant that AquaBounty hopes to finish building near Pioneer.

At 479,000 square feet on an 85-acre site, the one planned for Pioneer would be eight times larger than the one being sold off in Indiana.

The company said the Indiana facility “has succeeded in its objective to demonstrate the company’s ability to grow and sell its salmon in the market.

“With construction on its Ohio farm site roughly 30 percent completed, the company plans to prioritize the financing alternatives necessary to resume and complete its construction, while the proceeds from the sale of its Indiana farm are expected to provide needed liquidity to AquaBounty’s balance sheet,” the statement read.

Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty’s chief executive officer and chairman of its board, said the decision to sell the Indiana facility was a difficult one because the company felt it had “built a strong operation there with a passionate and experienced team.”

“Our focus will be on harvesting the remaining GE Atlantic salmon for sale over the coming months to ready the farm for a new owner,” she said.

Pioneer is about a 65-mile drive west of Toledo. The company has been working with its mayor, Ed Kidston, on building one of the nation’s largest indoor salmon farms there. Mr. Kidston was not available for comment Monday.

The project has drawn opposition from residents throughout a nine-county area in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio who get their well water from what’s known as the Michindoh Aquifer. They contend the plant’s massive water draw-down could impact their private water wells. Much of the opposition has come from an activist group called the Williams County Alliance.

“The sale of the Albany, Ind., plant is yet another indicator of a failing business attempting to prop itself up financially in order to continue their ‘pump and dump’ salmon plant in Pioneer, Ohio,” said Sherry Fleming, the group’s spokesman. “A ‘house of cards’ best describes AquaBounty’s business plan.”

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority agreed in the fall of 2022 to sell up to $425 million in bonds to help finance the project. That’s $125 million more than the original $300 million in bonds the port board had agreed to sell in October, 2021 for AquaBounty.

Kayla Cunningham, the port authority’s communications manager, said Monday no bonds have been issued. She said the agency has not received an update from AquaBounty and is not aware of any future plans outside of what was announced publicly.

Ashley Epling, director of the Williams County Economic Development Corp., is optimistic the Pioneer project will be finished, although she recognizes the company’s financial issues and rising construction costs. Some are believed to be the result of pandemic-related supply chain issues.

“The cost of things continue to rise,” Ms. Epling said. “I do believe AquaBounty is trying. I know there are mixed opinions about it. [But] I know it would be an amazing economic development project for the county.”

She said she recognizes concerns about water usage, but believes agencies such as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources would step in if there was a danger of lowering the water table.

“I think it would be a good economic investment for the county,” Ms. Epling said. “I put my faith in people empowered to make those decisions.”

To help facilitate the project, Ms. Epling appeared before the Pioneer Village Council last Wednesday with a request to amend the enterprise tax zone agreement for AquaBounty, which the council did by a 5-1 vote.

She said that was necessary to get a potential end date of August, 2026 on record. The original agreement called for construction to be finished by Dec. 31, 2023, she said.

“That was the date they had given me,” Ms. Epling said of the new 2026 target date for completion. She said the company has not given her a restart date, though.

Another possible delay is the Williams County Board of Commissioners’ decision last week, by a 2-1 vote, to appeal a recent court decision about right-of-way use for water lines.

That vote came Feb. 13 in response to a long-awaited ruling by visiting Judge Reeve Kelsey, whom the Ohio Supreme Court had appointed to hear the case in Williams County Common Pleas Court.

Though generally supportive of the project, the county commissioners asked for a ruling because they believed it might not be proper for a water line to pass through public land and be built with public money to supply only a private business. The question was whether the lines could be legally considered a public utility.

In a 14-page order, Judge Kelsey said he found the county commissioners took an “arbitrary and capricious” position when it voted against letting AquaBounty and the village of Pioneer build the plant-related water and wastewater pipelines.

Commissioners Lewis Hilkert and Bart Westfall voted to appeal the judge’s ruling. Commissioner Terry Rummel dissented.

In minutes from that Feb. 13 meeting posted online, Mr. Rummel was quoted as saying that he knows his vote in favor of proceeding “may not [be] as popular amongst everybody but it is great for the village of Pioneer, it is great for the North Central Schools.”

He said he would be in favor of allowing access for the pipes because the plant’s tax revenue to the village and school district would be “substantial.”

The other two commissioners said there are “just a lot of unknowns” and reminded Mr. Rummel that Kidston Consulting owns the well field from which AquaBounty wants draw water for the plant, according to the meeting transcript.

Two attorneys advised the board that a developer “cannot take private and run it through public right of way to another private company,” Mr. Hilkert said, according to the board minutes.

“The three of us made a decision to decline the application based on the information we were given,” Mr. Hilkert said. “Judge Kelsey came in and I am not sure Judge Kelsey really understood the whole gamut of this operation.”

None of the three commissioners could be reached for comment Monday.

“The decision that we are making isn’t necessarily just for the village of Pioneer. This is a decision for 37,000 people that live in this county,” Mr. Hilkert added, according to the transcript of the minutes. “I think we owe it to our citizens to appeal it and let a three-judge [appellate] panel make the decision and not one single judge that was visiting.”

Mr. Westfall agreed, calling the decision “strictly legal.”

“It has nothing to do with water consumption,” he said, acknowledging in the transcript he was “at a loss” over how to vote, but then went along with Mr. Hilkert in agreeing to spend money on an appeal.

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