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Camden comeback slowed 

Proposed pellet plant problematic.

Things have not gone well for Camden in recent years — for most of South Arkansas, really — but they seemed to be looking up last summer. State and federal officials turned out for a ground-breaking ceremony for a new plant, in a town that has grown more accustomed to plant closings. The new plant possessed symbolic significance too, in that it would be on the old International Paper Company property. From 1927 until it closed in 2000, the IP paper mill was a major employer in Camden. More than a thousand people lost their jobs when the mill shut down. (Also shut down was the plant's strong odor, but Camden residents never noticed the smell anyway. Visitors did.)

The new plant would also be part of the fashionable "green" movement, intended to help 21st century America move away from foreign and dirty sources of energy, into the clean-energy uplands. Here was industrial development that was good for the economy and good for the environment. Cheering was prevalent.

No one was happier or prouder last Aug. 13 than Camden Mayor Chris Claybaker. "I'm the one that first talked with Phoenix [Renewable Energy] and convinced them they should locate on this old IP site," Claybaker said in a recent interview. "We felt something like this would help turn us around — not a panacea but a good step in the right direction."

A year later, all stepping has ceased. There's been no construction on the proposed new plant — June 4 was a projected starting date that passed unobserved — and Phoenix has yet to obtain the final approval it seeks from state environmental-quality officials under the "brownfield" program. That final approval won't be given until some rather expensive work has been done to remove contaminants left over from the paper mill operations. Presumably, the money would have to come from Phoenix or from the Camden Area Industrial Development Corp., which now owns the IP property and is leasing it to Phoenix.

Even worse, the state securities commissioner determined that Phoenix was selling stock in violation of state law and ordered it to stop. Investigation is continuing.

And, certain information about Phoenix executives that might have aroused suspicion had it been known earlier has now come to light. Skepticism is growing that the Phoenix plant will ever become operational, much less be the boon that was hoped for.

The situation has become a "nightmare," Claybaker told the Arkansas Times, before he stopped returning our phone calls.

Some 400 people were on hand at the groundbreaking Aug. 13, 2009, according to a news release. They'd been told that Phoenix would build a $180 million wood-pellet plant on 44 acres of the old IP property, and that the pellets would be shipped to Europe where "cap-and-trade" laws forced the burning of pellets instead of coal to generate electricity. The plant would employ up to 60 people, it was said, and create 450 more jobs in timber, transportation and other industries that would serve the plant.

Among the officials who spoke at the ceremony were U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who is a vocal supporter of biomass, such as wood pellets. Pryor, whose family has deep roots in Camden, said that South Arkansas needed clean-energy jobs. Representatives of environmental groups — the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society — were on hand, some waving "Clean Energy" signs. Gov. Mike Beebe sent a representative to the event, as did U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who also issued a statement from Washington: "Phoenix Renewable Energy is poised to help make our state a leader in renewable energy production." (Spokesmen for Pryor, Lincoln, Ross and Beebe say they were invited by Mayor Claybaker and others, and that they routinely attend or comment on industrial groundbreakings.)

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