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September 1, 2009

 

Groton fish farm closure impacts village sewer budget

Fishery contributed 25 percent, or about $60,000, of revenue to the village’s sewer budget

FishBob Ellis/staff photographer
Fingerlakes Aquaculture on Route 221 in Groton has closed its doors.

By ANTHONY BORRELLI
Staff Reporter
aborrelli@cortlandstandard.net

GROTON — A local fish farm shut down in early August, as costs mounted and profits decreased.
Fingerlakes Aquaculture Inc., on East Cortland Road, was founded in 1999 because there was a need for locally produced fish, said the fishery’s founder, Dr. Michael Timmons, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University.
Timmons, who is no longer affiliated with the fishery, said the closure typifies how difficult it is to produce food of any kind on a competitive basis with imports.
The current owners could not be reached for comment.
The closure has ramifications for the village of Groton, since the facility used the village’s wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Owasco Lake inlet.
The fishery contributed 25 percent, or about $60,000, of the revenue to the village’s sewer budget, said Charles Rankin, the village administrator.
“That’s a big chunk of change,” Rankin said.
Anticipating the revenue loss shortly before the fishery closed, village officials in July were able to make about $32,000 in cuts. Rankin did not know what would be done to make up for the rest.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation had blamed Fingerlakes Aquaculture for high phosphorous emissions from fish waste treated at the sewer plant, which were being dumped into Owasco Lake.
Rankin said the village had a plan to adopt an ordinance that would require the fishery to pretreat its discharge, in an effort to clean up its wastewater and hopefully reduce phosphorous.
The approximately 40,000-square-foot facility produced more than 1 million pounds of tilapia annually, shipping to locations throughout the eastern United States and parts of Canada.
But in recent years, as with other food producers in the country, the fishery was hurt by increased production costs while market prices remained relatively stable, Timmons said.
“The profitability was less than in other years,” he said.
Rankin said the plant’s closing will have an unknown impact on the improvements to the sewer treatment plant and the village’s expenses in renovating it.
“We originally thought the cost would be $2.6 million but the bids came back $1.5 million over,” he said. “We have to work on financing. I think the work on the plant will take nine to 12 months.”
Rankin said that without the fish farm, the village would have to absorb a higher amount of the cost, which would raise the sewer and water rate. The rate is currently $3.50 per 100 cubic feet.
He said the fish farm used about 50,000 gallons of water per day. How much it discharged into Owasco Lake inlet is unknown. So is the amount of phosphorus the plant contributed to what entered the lake.
The DEC fined the village $1,000 in 2006 for putting more water through its sewer plant than the plant’s capacity. Rankin said it is unknown how much of that was due to the fish farm’s water usage.
When Fingerlakes Aquaculture opened for business in 1999, it received aid from the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency in the form of a 10-year tax abatement, said IDA Administrative Director Michael Stamm.
Stamm added the IDA typically gives incentives such as those to help during the tough start-up phase.
“When a company, such as the fishery, is forced to close down due to economic factors, it is unlikely the IDA would want to recapture those incentives,” Stamm said. “We know that they were struggling for quite a few years to make that operation profitable.”
Rankin said the village annexed land to extend its sewer and water lines, to accommodate the fish farm. He said the water lines cost $70,000 to extend, which has been paid off, and the sewer lines cost $140,000, which will be paid off in five years.
Fingerlakes Aquaculture was an offshoot of Timmons’ research at Cornell, which focused on whether the fish production technology employed at the Groton facility could compete economically against imported seafood.

 

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