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Sugar crop community envisioned

June 22, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

University of California researchers envision an environmentally friendly community planned around sugar crops and ethanol and byproduct processing plants in Imperial County.

The community, which would be built southeast of Brawley, would be self-sufficient. Buildings would be constructed of and electricity generated from crop byproducts, all with minimum industrial waste.

The community, called the EcoPark-Mesquite Lake Specific Plan Area, could bring from 1,000 to 2,000 skilled jobs to the county.

The plan area would include employee housing and day care, an education and training center, an environmentally friendly transportation system, recycled industrial processed water, and buildings constructed from materials manufactured on-site using renewable resources.

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California has a future as a large market for ethanol, according to a report last year by the California Energy Commission. Ethanol is a replacement for the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ethers, commonly known as MTBE.

MTBE is a crude oil by-product that has been used to reduce pollutants in gasoline. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports people have complained that MTBE causes nausea, dizziness, headaches and eye, nose and throat irritation.

MTBE is being phased out by the federal government next year because it has been found to pollute groundwater. California will have to stop using it in 2004. The demand for ethanol in California now is 300 million gallons.

The University of California Desert Research Extension Center produced a report with the University of California, Riverside Forecasting Center last December that projected a positive outcome for sugar cane-to-ethanol operations in the Valley.

The report shows trial sugar cane harvests in the Valley are 50 percent higher in tonnage and 50 percent higher in sugar per acre than harvests in Louisiana, where sugar cane is a mainstay crop.

Sugar cane prospers in the intense heat of Imperial Valley's summer months, states the report by Paul Sebesta, director of the desert research center.

A number of local farmers have started to experiment with sugar cane varieties.

The secret to Valley farmers' success with sugar percentage is the soil, sugar cane farmer Craig Elmore said in an earlier interview.

Elmore partnered with Larry Fleming and Carson Kalin to form Brawley-based Imperial Bioresources. They plan to expand the Holly Sugar plant between Brawley and Imperial to process sugar cane by November 2004. The plant currently processes sugar beets. The cost to expand the plant will run well over $100 million.

Another sugar cane project is the Imperial Valley Sugarcane Growers Association, a growers' group formed by Claude Finnell of El Centro and William Batley Jr. of Brawley.

In a desert environment, water and nitrogen levels in the soil can be controlled. Before the crop is harvested, Valley farmers can cut back the water and nitrogen, simulating a drought. The cut-back forces the plant to store more sugar and produce higher sugar levels at harvest.

Sebesta said up to $300 million could be invested in ethanol operations in the Valley over the next 18 months.

The North American Development Bank awarded the county $100,000 for ethanol project research, county department of Community and Economic Development Director Ken Hollis stated in a June 6 letter to the county Board of Supervisors.

Hollis' letter states several businesses have contacted the department with interest in locating to the Valley to produce ethanol and sugar cane byproducts.

Besides ethanol, sugar cane byproducts include building materials, industrial chemicals and animal feeds.

Tony Humble, chairman and chief executive officer of Ontario-based Synxx Energy Solutions, said the community would be built in three phases.

Phase one is for development of the sugar cane crop; phase two is for small-scale cane production. Financing and construction start in phase two. Enough building materials could be processed from the sugar cane to build 1,000 low-cost homes for the park's employees. In phase three, all components of the community would come together.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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