Work stopped at Fulton ethanol plant

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Remember the BlueFire ethanol plant? The one that’s supposedly being built on Access Road in Fulton? Whatever happened to that thing?

After the project’s announcement in 2009, two years of securing finances from across the world and site clearing in preparation for construction, work on the project has seemingly dried up.

So, what’s going on with the project? Truth is, not much. According to Itawamba County Development Council Executive Director Greg Deakle — who said he speaks with representatives of the California-based company on a weekly basis — work on the Fulton plant has gone on indefinite hiatus while BlueFire Renewables focuses on other projects, most notably the construction of a sugar cellulose plant in Korea.

Although there’s nothing to announce either now or in the foreseeable future, Deakle said that doesn’t mean the project’s dead in the water.

“We’re still working and they’re still working, but nothing’s definite yet,” he said, adding that all the prep work in Itawamba County has been ready for months. “That site’s ready to go; all of their permits are in place.”

Despite the construction of the plant being on hold, BlueFire Renewables is still paying a monthly lease on the site, preparation of which was completed in June 2011. Deakle said the company has a “long-term lease” with Itawamba County. He said the company also pays for work at the port that will be utilized by the plant once it’s up and running.

With more than three years worth of work behind it, the BlueFire ethanol plant is one of the longest projects Deakle’s worked on during his career. That’s not a tremendous surprise, he said: Ethanol production — which involves fermenting raw materials for their sugar to create an alcohol that can replace petroleum-based fuels — is still a relatively new technology, so the construction of a large ethanol refinery might be expected to take longer than those involving established technologies.

That said, large projects tend to lumber rather than sprint. For a typical large project, Deakle said the average time from site selection to “up-and-running” is two years or so. Sometimes more, if there are complications.

“There’s a lot of due diligence and research that goes into just the site selection,” Deakle said. “It takes a while to build up a head of steam.”

Deakle said the company is still working to collect enough financing to construct the plant, which carried an estimated price tag of $300-million when it was initially proposed. As time went on, prices increased, forcing the company to look for additional methods of financing the project. In 2011, the company announced that it had partnered with Chinese equity company China Huadian Engineering Company, which became an equal partner in the project and provided the extra funding that was needed.

The announcement of the partnership is the last major news release related to the Fulton project recorded on the company’s website.

Last February, the company announced a deal with Korea-based petroleum company GS Caltex to build a cellulose sugar plant in Korea. According to Deakle, that project has occupied most of the company’s time since the announcement, pushing the Itawamba County project to the back burner.

Once completed, the Fulton project will allow the company to utilize green and wood wastes available in the region as feedstock for the ethanol plant, which will be designed to produce approximately 19 million gallons of ethanol per year.

BlueFire said the construction of the plant will create 700 jobs; once fully operational, the plant will employ 70 to 80 workers.

That’s good news for Itawamba County, when and if the plant ever sees completion. Despite the lack of solid news, Deakle remains confident of the project’s future. That future may just take a bit longer to get here than expected.

“Sometimes things don’t work out the way you think they would or would like them to,” he said. “But [BlueFire] hasn’t given up on us, and we haven’t given up on them.”

adam.armour@journalinc.com