Recruitment under way for Fulton ethanol plant

FULTON – Quiet groundwork for a possible ethanol plant has become public with property options and concerns from one Fulton couple.
“We see this as a life-ruining experience,” said Elizabeth Triplett, who lives with her husband, Alan, on Spring Street Extended between the Mueller Copper Tube Co. and mostly residential property stretching to Access Road beside the port.
Local officials, however, see it as a major opportunity to bring new jobs to the community.
The Tripletts are drawing attention to the industry plans, as county and city officials confirm they are early in a process to recruit such a project.
“We are recruiting a plant right now,” said Mayor Paul Walker.
Supervisors’ President Danny Holley described it as “a major project.”
Holley and Walker confirmed that options are being signed for property from Access Road up Spring Street Extended.
They declined to provide any other details, but the goal is for a facility to be constructed near the Tenn-Tom Waterway port adjacent to a woodchip mill, which may be the source for raw materials.
Ethanol is alcohol made from fermenting raw materials for their sugar. It can replace petroleum-based fuels, be an ingredient in alcoholic beverages or be used as a solvent.
Dr. Bill Batchelor at Mississippi State University said he’s heard talk about such a facility, which he speculated could be a good fit in rural areas.
“The big plants based on corn produce about 100 million gallons a year,” said the co-director of the Sustainable Energy Research Center. But the corn demand has driven up costs for the grain and caused economic problems across the food-supply system.
Whether Fulton’s plant will use grain or other bio-materials is one of many details yet to surface.
Batchelor said MSU is conducting its ethanol research on raw materials from trees, cotton-gin trash and grasses to convert the biomass to gasoline and jet fuel.
The Tripletts, who moved back 10 years ago into the house she grew up in, aren’t among the residents asked to sign options to sell their property. They live just past the rail spur and say they learned about the project from neighbors at a wedding reception about 10 days ago.
They also say they’ve been told the project won’t need their land, which is zoned industrial.
But they worry about how it will affect their property value and their environment, especially if the plant spews chemical fumes or if the nearby wooded property is clear cut. They also worry that developers won’t wait for permits before they start cutting trees or doing other work, which cannot be reversed if the project falls through.
“We’re willing to live with this,” said Elizabeth Triplett, 57, a former social worker, pointing to the rail cars parked nearby, “but we can’t live with an ethanol plant.”
They also wonder if enough jobs will be created to justify the changes the plant could bring.
“There aren’t enough trees in Itawamba County to run this thing,” said Alan Triplett, 55, who has a degree in forestry.
But Batchelor downplayed their concerns about fumes, saying if the facility uses a heat process to break down the wood chips to convert sugar into alcohol, emissions are virtually non-existent.
He said this process is “a lot cheaper” than a rival acid-based approach. But for now, he said government subsidies and tax credits are needed to help biofuels plants get started because they still can’t make a product inexpensively enough to compete with $2.50-per-gallon fuels.
“We’re getting close,” Batchelor noted, saying the South has enough waste materials to create enough biomass to replace 20 percent of current fuel supplies.
He said a small, 200-ton plant would employ about 30 people, using the waste from a typical sawmill to produce 10 million gallons of fuel per year.
“This is a pretty clean process,” he added, saying the raw materials are heated so high that they become a vapor, which when cooled becomes a gas and leaves about 5 percent charcoal.
The charcoal then becomes fuel to heat more raw materials, and the cycle begins again.
Robbie Wilbur, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, said no permit requests have been made for an ethanol facility in Fulton. The state’s lone plant is run by Bunge-Ergon in Vicksburg with grain as its raw material.
Toward the port down the road from the Tripletts lives Ron Herrington, 50, who said he hasn’t heard anything about plans for an ethanol plant.
“I noticed real estate agents out here,” he recalled, saying he’d heard speculation that a steel-manufacturing plant might be in the works.
A check in the Itawamba tax assessor’s and chancery clerk’s offices shows no activity for property sales along Spring Street Extended.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com. Read Patsy’s blog, From the Front Row, on NEMS360.com.

WHAT’S ETHANOL?
An alcohol obtained from fermentation of sugars and starches or by chemical synthesis. It is the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic beverages, and is also used as a solvent, in explosives, and as an additive to or replacement for petroleum-based fuels. Also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol.
SOURCE: thefreedictionary.com

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal