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Article published May 20, 2005
Invasive plant has residents worried

By Johnny Kampis
Staff Writer

LINDEN | Developers promised landowners Thursday that they would conduct environmental impact studies before introducing the Arundo donax, which is a bamboo-like plant, into the area.

Among the concerns of Marengo County residents is the invasive nature of the Arundo donax, a plant landowners would be asked to grow that would be turned into pulp and shipped to foreign markets.

The plant is considered by many environmental groups to be among the most invasive plants in the world, taking over native vegetation and choking off water flows.

"There has to be an environment impact assessment," said Iain MacAulay, an adviser for Global Cellulose Systems, a British company that hopes to sell the hardwood alternative in Europe and China. "We will look at all of these/sissues."

GCS said it wants to build a $530 million mill and power plant to produce pulp and employ hundreds in the Linden area. The company wants local landowners to agree to grow the reed on 30,000 acres within a 30-mile radius of the mill.

Company officials met with area landowners at Linden Baptist Church Thursday during an all-day session that included presentations from port authorities on shipping the pulp.

Representatives from West Wind Technologies, Inc., a Tennessee firm that would assist local farmers in growing the plant, insist that the reed would not spread to other areas.

West Wind President John Woods said he hasn’t heard of the reed spreading beyond the borders of nearly 50 plantations in Italy and other countries around the world that grow it.

"They will tell you they have never had an escape that is documented," he said.

But Jeanette Hudson, a Marengo County landowner, said she has talked with several environmental groups who expressed concern about introducing the plant into Alabama in large quantities. Arundo donax has existed here for more than two centuries, but only in small patches.

"I tend to believe them over big corporations," Hudson said.

Several environmental officials attending the meeting spoke about the need for extensive study before the plant is introduced.

"We would urge caution," said Ben Moore of the Alabama Plant Council. "Let’s have some research first."

Some owners of timberland are worried that the reed would compete with their product, but MacAulay said it wouldn’t. He said the pulp created from Arundo donax is completely different from the native hardwood of the United States.

"We’re not even going to be competing with other pulp mills, in production or market," MacAulay said. "What we’re talking about is in addition to what pulp mills make, not as a substitute for it."

MacAulay said GCS hopes to sell the pulp to parts of Europe and China where there is a shortage of hardwood and the product is used to make a variety of products, from flooring to clothing.

"It’s really a global market, and it’s going to be an attractive market for us," he said.

One landowner claiming to be 40-year veteran of the pulp industry voiced his support for the project.

"This is not going to put you out of business," the unidentified man said. "It’s going to give you another product to sell."

Agriculturists at Auburn University have grown a test plot of Arundo donax near Selma without much success.

Joe Sumner, an economic official from Auburn, said the test plot yielded only two tons per acre in the first year, finally reaching 20 tons per acre in the sixth year.

West Wind touted 20 tons per acre as the expected yield for area farmers at a meeting last week, but the company representatives returned with a more conservative estimate of 15 tons per acre at the meeting Thursday.

Rod Tawil, a West Wind employee, said that would still result in profits of more than $200 an acre each year.

Woods said some plantations have seen yields of 40 tons per acre. The reed hasn’t been grown in the Southeast before in large quantities.

"You’re going to have to grow it to see what you’re going to get," Woods said. "We expect good yields, but at 15 tons an acre you still get a good return."

Officials with West Wind and GCS will meet with landowners again today and possibly Saturday to discuss the issue further.

Pat Dixon, a consultant to the Linden Area Industrial Development Board, which recruited the companies for this project, said the next step is to query landowners.

"Let’s see how they feel," she said. "We’ve got to evaluate how many acres we’ve got."

Reach Johnny Kampis at  or at 722-0206.

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