Chester officials view ethanol plant in Iowa

CHESTER -- Some local officials and landowners got a firsthand look this week at an ethanol-manufacturing plant similar to one that might be built in Chester County.

A company, which hasn't been named, is eyeing a 330-acre site on Beltline Road, county officials said. That plant could bring as many as 63 jobs. It would produce ethanol, a fuel that burns cleaner than regular gasoline and can be made from reusable products such as corn.

On Wednesday, a state Department of Commerce plane carrying economic development officials, County Councilman Joe Branham and two men who own property adjacent to the Beltline site flew from Chester to Iowa to see a plant like the one being considered for Chester.

The offer was extended to other border property owners, but only two could go, said Karlisa Parker, the county's economic development director.

"We thought that was the only way that landowners would have firsthand information," she said. "Walk it while it's in operation. Smell it. See it."

The group flew out of the Chester airport at 8:30 a.m. and got back around 9:45 p.m., said Mac McKinney, one of the landowners on the flight.

"It was worth it," he said of the trip. "I wanted to know about what they were going to build in my backyard."

The plant the group observed was in Albert City, Iowa, McKinney said.

The facility, owned by US Bio-Energy, has been running since December and expects to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol and 320,000 tons of dried distillers grain each year, according to the company's Web site. The plant employs more than 40 people.

US BioEnergy, however, is not the company that wants to build in Chester, McKinney said. He said he doesn't know the name of that business.

But the construction firm that built the Albert City plant is Fagen, the same company McKinney said would build the Chester plant if the deal goes through.

Pleased with observations

McKinney said the plant he saw produced no overpowering odor or noise, concerns he had when he first heard about it. He even stopped random employees and asked them what they thought about the plant.

Overall, he was pleased with what he saw.

"I think this is the best -- by far -- factory that's going to go back there," he said. "I think it'll be a good neighbor."

Branham, whose district includes the Beltline site, also liked the Iowa plant. Like McKinney, he also was concerned about the environmental impact of the plant before the trip.

"I didn't see anything negative on the environment out there," he said. "I was real impressed with it, and I think it'll be a good match for Chester County."

What's next?

The next step in the selling process comes Tuesday, when a rezoning request for the tract goes before the county's planning commission.

The business is asking for a rezoning because land-use rules require a heavier industrial designation for a facility that manufactures alternative fuels, Parker said.

The actual plant would use only 100 acres. Parker said the company liked the site because it is buffered by trees.

The plant would use trucks and trains to move its products. That means about two trains would pass through the site every week, and three trucks would come through each hour, Parker said. The traffic shouldn't cause a problem, she said, because other companies have closed or scaled back operations in recent years.

The ethanol plant would initially bring 45 jobs paying around $42,000 a year. All but three of those jobs would be filled locally. The company might also eventually build a liquid carbon dioxide or "dry ice" plant on the site that would employ 15 to 18 people and pay them about $22,000 per year. Dry ice has a variety of uses, including shipping.

What is ethanol?

Ethanol is a fuel alternative that can be made from corn, wood chips and other renewable products.

Ethanol burns cleaner than regular gas and using ethanol-based fuels supports local economies because area manufacturers can easily produce corn and other products used for the production of ethanol. The company eyeing Chester County for an ethanol plant has said it will buy all the local corn it can.

Proponents also say ethanol is an alternative to Americans' dependence on foreign oil.