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E-Fuels pursuing a factory in Helena

A Nevada ethanol production company signed a letter of intent with the Helena-West Helena-Phillips County Port Authority on Thursday night to build a $185 million plant that would produce 108 million gallons of ethanol annually.

No final decision on the plant has been made and research still needs to be done on the company, E-Fuels Inc., Tom Turner, executive director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. But Phillips County officials are hoping the project works out, Turner said.

“It could change the region, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Turner said.

Used as a gasoline additive, ethanol produces cleaner-burning fuel with higher octane and improved engine performance. Ethanol-blended fuel is less expensive than gasoline.

Fritz Voelker, chairman of the board of Las Vegas-based E-Fuels, said there are still some questions his firm needs answered – particularly incentives for the project – but he is “cautiously optimistic” it will happen.

E-Fuels is evaluating several locations along the Mississippi River in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, Voelker said. But the Helena Port meets more of the 20 characteristics the company needs than any other place on the river, Voelker said.

“The biggest criteria was the still-water harbor,” Voelker said. Helena-West Helena has one of the best still-water harbors developed in the past 20 years along the Mississippi River, Voelker said.

Voelker estimated the plant would need $7 million to $8 million in economic incentives to make it feasible to be built in Helena-West Helena. Discussions about incentives have not been conducted.

E-Fuels’ plant would employ 65 workers, Voelker said.

Voelker estimated it would take three to four months to get the environmental permits the company needs for the plant. If everything works out, the plant could open in 2008, he said.

Farmers in the area also will have the opportunity to invest in the venture, said Martin Chaffin, executive director of the port.

“We will be able to give our local farmers a market for their grain,” Chaffin said. “I’m hoping this will bring a lot more corn acreage to this area. There will be no way that we will be able to satisfy this operation, but it will certainly be a shot in the arm to our farmers.” Voelker said it would take about 40 million bushels of corn annually to produce 108 million gallons of ethanol.

E-Fuels will rely on farmers from the region and will ship much of it by barge along the Arkansas River to Helena-West Helena, Voelker said.

Arkansas produced about 30 million bushels of corn last year.

Phillips County is one of the poorest counties in the state. Its unemployment rate is 8.8 percent and its population, about 24,100 in 2004, has steadily declined for the past 40 years.

If the plant is built, it could have a trickle-down effect for the Phillips County economy, said Joe Black, senior vice president for Southern Financial Partners.

“Farmers would be looking at more stable prices for their crops,” Black said. “With increasing fuel prices, farmers are raising crops at a break-even level now. If they could get a 30-cent spike in prices, it could make a difference in profit or loss for them.” E-Fuels is a new company, incorporating in Nevada last month, Voelker said. It is in a joint venture with Benchmark Engineering of Clearwater, Fla., Voelker said.

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