October 09, 2013 Edition

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Biofuel, Hwy. 67 topics
of NEARIFA meeting

Entergy Customer Service Manager David Burnette (left) and Lawrence County Quorum Court member Junior Briner discuss Intermodal business at the monthly Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority meeting in Pocahontas on Sept. 24.

Dalton Sullivan
Star Herald

Biofuel grasses and Highway 67 were the two main topics of conversation on Sept. 24 at the regular monthly meeting of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority (NEARIFA).

Former State Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould, who is now working with MFA Oil, discussed the future of miscanthus, which is a large perennial grass with potential for use in energy production.

Wooldridge praised the work of the NEARIFA, saying, "When we think little, we can't do big things." He said he has long been an advocate of regionalism, and sees it at work in Northeast Arkansas.

Wooldridge said miscanthus is an energy grass, and in Northeast Arkansas there are approximately 5,500 acres of the grass planted in an eight-county area, but he said there needs to be more.

Miscanthus grows to about 10-to-12 feet tall, and once mature is cut and the cane is used as a biofuel. Wooldridge told the NEARIFA Board that MFA has been involved in the cultivation and study of miscanthus along with the University of Missouri and University of Illinois for several years, and they see a bright future for the grass as a biofuel.

"MFA will announce soon," Wooldridge said, "that they will build a $165 million facility somewhere in the eight-county area." Wooldridge said the new facility would have a capability of 20 million gallons and would employ 60 to 80 people. He said MFA is still doing their due diligence on the project and does not have a specific date when an announcement will be made or where the new plant would be located.

"In order to sustain the facility," Wooldridge said, "we will need 30,000 acres of miscanthus grass planted in the eight-county area."

Corning Mayor Dewayne Phelan and NEARIFA board member Dalton Sullivan discussed a recent planning meeting of several members of the Hwy. 67 Coalition. At that meeting it was agreed the coalition, as a whole, would endorse: a) a four-lane facility from the end of the four-lane in Missouri to the end of the four-lane in Arkansas; b) the westernmost four-lane alignment and c) an expressway facility that could be converted to interstate standards.

This resolution, which will be discussed and voted on when the complete Hwy. 67 Coalition meets in Walnut Ridge on Friday, Oct. 25, is significant because it reflects a compromise between leaders in Clay and Randolph Counties. Officials in Clay County have in the past preferred that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) continue with Highway 67 north from Walnut Ridge to the state line and be built to interstate standards and follow Arkansas highways 34 and 90. Randolph County and Pocahontas leaders opposed this idea because if built, Highway 67 would then bypass Pocahontas completely.

With the proposed resolution, the Hwy. 67 Coalition is endorsing the western-most route, which will bring the highway much closer to Pocahontas. They also hope the AHTD will see the unity between the three counties and communities, and react favorably to expediting work on Highway 67 north.

In other business, NEARIFA Director Wayne Gearhart made mention of the ongoing discussions with a prospect who has spent a lot of time looking at this area. Gearhart, who has had numerous meetings with them, is hopeful an announcement will be made within the next several weeks.

Rebekah Bryant from Congressman Rick Crawford's office and Nathan Davis from Sen. John Boozman's office also updated the NEARIFA Board on happenings in Washington.

The next meeting will be Thursday, Oct. 24, in Pocahontas.

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