Questioned by members of the Williams County Alliance Monday, Williams County Commissioners say they will not formally object to the proposed AquaBounty project.
Alliance members Lou Pendleton, Sherry Fleming, Rosemary Hug and Stu Rosendaul appeared at the commissioners’ meeting Monday. Pendleton noted that Defiance County Commissioners, in a letter dated Sept. 8, 2022, and addressed to the Ohio EPA Permits Processing Unit in Columbus, expressed opposition to the AquaBounty project.
But Williams County’s three commissioners — Terry Rummel, Lew Hilkert and Brian Davis — said they would not oppose the project.
AquaBounty, which bills itself as an an “aquaculture” company headquartered in Maynard, Massachusetts, proposes a commercial salmon farm on a site on Kexon Drive in Pioneer. A 479,000-square-foot facility, which is currently under construction, would raise 10,000 metric tons of genetically modified salmon a year at the Pioneer North Industrial Park, and represents a $320 million investment, company officials have said.
In order to operate, the company said it intends to draw up to 5.25 million gallons a day (mgd) from the local underground aquifer and run it though its plant. Company officials have said it was attracted to aquifer water because it is naturally cool, which suits the production process and would save the company from constructing its own cooling process. The plant would then dump the vast majority of used aquifer water into the St. Joseph River.
It’s that plan that drew opposition from Defiance County Commissioners Mick Pocratsky, David S. Kern and Dana Phipps. Their letter of opposition notes the aquifer is the “primary source of drinking water for the residents of Defiance County ... Should the levels of the aquifer drop, if contamination occurs, or outsourced volumes are increased, it would have a devastating impact on Defiance County residents, and the residents of the surrounding counties and states.”
Defiance County’s letter asked the OEPA that “any proposals to drill, pump or sell water (including this request by AquaBounty) be denied or delayed” until a study now underway by the United States Geological Services is completed. The USGS has said it hopes its study could determine factors such as the area encompassed by the aquifer, the amount of water in it and the estimated lifetime of the aquifer.
Pendleton referenced the Defiance County Commissioners letter in asking Williams County’s Commissioners to show their public support for suspending the AquaBounty project until the USGS study is completed.
Rummel, Hilkert and Davis all declined, with Rummel reiterating his previous comments that he supports the AquaBounty project, which is being shepherded locally by Ed Kidston, mayor of Pioneer who also is president of a Pioneer-based water treatment and services company.
“I’ve made my position very clear on this board and publicly that I support AquaBounty. I believe the rules and regulations that we have in place are sufficient,” Rummel said.
Said Hilkert: “In regards to AquaBounty, I’ve always stood to the point, if it’s legal, it’s fine. However, the jury is still out with a couple of the applications (for permits from the OEPA and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources). For whatever reason, the state continues to go forward. We have no jurisdiction over this project, therefore, my opinion is, it’s legal (and) I’m not going to stand in it’s way.”
Davis noted the commissioners, after securing a legal opinion, recently denied the use of public right-of-way for proposed water and wastewater lines along County Road S to benefit AquaBounty, because it was ruled Aquabounty is not a public utility.
He also commented on the public input portion of the permitting process
“As Lew said, what is legal and what is prudent is one thing, writing letters to the EPA and things like that don’t do anything, carries no weight, I’m not altogether certain they even look at them. They are going through a process ... and I’m not interested, and obviously with these two (Rummel and Hilkert) not interested in doing a resolution, I couldn’t get a second even if I wanted to.
“I think this board needs to do what is legal and what is in their realm of authority,” Davis said.
Pendleton referenced a 2018 resolution passed by the Williams County Commissioners opposing a plan at the time by Kidston to pump as much as 10 mgd from the local aquifer — dubbed the Michindoh, because it is believed to lay within nine counties in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio — and ship it to a collection of suburbs of Toledo, a plan that drew widespread condemnation in the county and was later scrapped.
That 2018 resolution, Pendleton said, contained language that said commissioners needed more time to learn more about the aquifer and what the potential impact could be if the plan to supply Toledo’s suburbs was implemented, and the water “should not be exported for financial gain.”
The 2018 resolution also said, “Just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. We do not support or endorse this venture.”
Pendleton said while commissioners indicated in 2018 that, even though that plan was legal, they could not support exporting water. Now, she said, commissioners say that the AquaBounty plan is legal, so they cannot oppose it.
“It’s the same thing. We still have a project that’s going to extract more gallons per day than is (used by) all the cities and villages in this county combined and dump it into the river, and we still lack the information that we really need to make wise decisions on how to use our aquifer water. And just because it’s right or legal to do doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, and you took an admirable position in 2018 and I think it would be a good idea to do so again now,” Pendleton said.
Davis said the 2018 project would have taken water out of the county, while the AquaBounty project would not, “so there is a difference.” In addition, he noted AquaBounty has legal rights to their property, “and whether we’re for or against it doesn’t matter.”
Fleming though, disagreed, saying it was important to send the message that residents overwhelmingly do not want the AquaBounty project in Williams County. Both she and Pendleton said residents have been shut out of the process.
“The people didn’t get a voice in this process, but the people of William County do not support this project and the Defiance County Commissioners are representing that viewpoint and I think Williams County Commissioners should represent that viewpoint,” said Pendleton.
The Williams County Alliance bills itself as a non-profit grassroots citizen group dedicated to promoting a sustainable future through education and citizen action.
Both the Williams County Democratic Party and all three trustees representing Madison Township have gone on record opposing the AquaBounty project. In a Public Forum published in the Sept. 22 edition of The Bryan Times, township trustees Rodney Baker, Terry Huffman and Mark Schmucker said they feel “no regard” has been given to the amount of water needed towards personal and farm use, believe that the wells are being pumped for personal profit and feel no regard has been given for the potential environmental damage the wastewater discharge from the facility could possibly cause.
The AquaBounty site was within Madison Township until Pioneer Village Council approved annexation of the land (and some adjoining properties) during a Feb. 6, 2021, village council meeting, following a 28-minute closed, executive session. They approved an amended annexation petition two days later on Feb. 8.
Two votes were needed because both the village and Madison Township — where the parcels are located — needed to approve the annexation.
While township trustees had actually met on Feb. 6, they had declined approving the annexation, despite Kidston offering what he later told The Bryan Times was a “very lucrative” offer to approve the annexation that same night.
“Kidston Consultants will pay Madison Township $50,000 if (the) annexation agreement is signed today. (Hausch) cannot guarantee payment after today,” the Feb. 6, 2021, township meeting minutes state.
The trustees eventually approved the annexation, on the condition that Pioneer pay the township $390.54 a year (the tax revenue the township would lose) in perpetuity. Kidston previously told The Times he would not offer the township the money again.
Huffman told The Times in late February 2021 that trustees felt pressured to accept the payment that same day (before they could inform residents of the proposal) and were concerned the money would be a payment directly from Kidston, which Kidston and Hausch denied. Huffman said the concern was a direct payment from a private citizen prior to a vote could potentially raise ethical concerns.
The land — consisting of approximately 81 acres — was owned by Kidston Consultants, LTD, a company owned by Pioneer Mayor Ed Kidston.
According to data from the Williams County Auditor’s website, Kidston — under Kidston Consultants, LTD — purchased the site now owned by AquaBounty from James E. Evers Trustee on Jan. 22, 2021, for $600,000.
On March 14, 2022, ODNR approved a water withdrawal permit for 3 mgd, which it has since revised to 5.25 mgd. AquaBounty held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site on April 20 and Kidston Consultants, LTD, sold the site to AquaBounty on May 17 of this year for $2,073,875.