Impact of Arundo industry worth the risks

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 11, 2005

Six months ago, would anyone in Marengo County have known the answer to this question?

Q: Which of these best describes “Arundo donax”?

a) Evil Emperor from the next “Star Wars” PlayStation game

Email newsletter signup

b) Type of Spanish tomahawk

c) Chemical often found in cheap, inefficient household cleaners

d) Bamboo-like reed potentially used for pulp production

e) Prime Minister of Uruguay

The “A:” is, as so many of us now know, d. We know because the British corporation West Wind Technologies say they want to build a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant in South Marengo to process the Arundo into valuable pulp for global consumption. We know because they have asked landowners in the area to designate thousands of acres for the cultivation of Arundo, promising to pay what on the surface appears to be a fair price for the landowner’s trouble (though whether that fairness extends below the surface is up for debate).

“Trouble” may be an especially appropriate term here, since that’s what many say Arundo promise to provide. Scientists have long designated the plant an “invasive” species, and the plant has gained the reputation amongst some observers as “the next kudzu.”

If the new manufacturing plant was going to process, say, hydrangea bushes, and could get by with each of us planting a couple in our back yard, we’d be throwing parades. (Think we could get Katie Couric for the second annual Columbus Day “Tournament of Hydrangeas”?) But what West Wind is suggesting is to plant of field after field after field with a species that, quite frankly, will impact the environment in ways no one really fully understands yet. It’s easy to understand why so many, despite the obvious benefits of a colossal new industry in the area, aren’t quite putting together Arundo floats or electing an “Arundo Beauty Queen” just yet.

Supporters of the Arundo plan will point out that, as I said, we don’t know how the plant will interact with the environment. Arundo may very well turn out to be easily contained in the agricultural setting and have few, if any, negative consequences on soil quality, species diversity, etc.

But the bottom line, if you ask me, is that Arundo does not naturally grow here; it will be what the biology textbooks would call an “introduced species.” And those same textbooks will tell you that the history of introduced species would be described as “ugly” at best, and “a never-ending series of catastrophes” at worst. Whether it’s Australian rabbits or Gypsy moths on the eastern seaboards or our own not-so-beloved kudzu, these sorts of projects, to put it politely as possible, just don’t tend to work out.

It’s true that with the history of those mishaps in mind, the transplantation of Arundo will be carried out with substantially more care and precision than those examples. No one’s going to scatter a trailer-ful of Arundo along a lush creekbank, sit back, and go “Oops.” (At least, they better not.) But as long as the scorebook from species introduction still reads Environmental Disaster: 367, Successful Transplantation: 2, my gut still tells me this is a bad idea.

But, on the other–and, finally, more persuasive hand–my gut can say that because it’s full of food. If I was trying to support a family of four on forty hours of minimum-wage work and my gut had nothing to chew on but an endless supply of ramen noodles and 99-cent fast-food burgers, I suspect it might say something very, very different about an industry that would create at least 350 new jobs for a Black Belt that is, in certain cases, literally starving for them.

This is, finally, the crux of the Arundo question. Not whether the plant will wreak environmental havoc or not, but if the improvement in the Black Belt’s economy and the region’s quality of life is worth the potential environmental havoc. If the site in question was in virtually any other part of the state–heck, nearly anywhere else in America–it wouldn’t be worth discussing. West Wind could find somewhere else’s ecology to mess around with and we’d bring in the next proposal.

But this isn’t anywhere else. It’s Marengo County, Alabama, next-door to Greene, Sumter, Hale, and Perry Counties, Alabama. There’s no telling when the next proposal is going to arrive, and in the meantime unemployment stays high, businesses continue to close, and the countless rural communities across our region continue to slowly, slowly perish.

In short, it’s a case of the environment’s push coming to humanity’s shove. I would, honestly, love to side with the environment. Being raised by a mother who would stop traffic to carry a turtle across a busy highway will, thankfully, do that to you. But this industry and its overall impact could carry thousands of my neighbors to a better life, and I for one hope it finds the support it needs to arrive.

That said, I have one giant caveat–the other other hand of the argument, as it were. Landowners are going to have to being cultivating the Arundo long before construction on the plant is even begun, much less when it swings into action. As many times as this region has gotten the short end of the stick, it’s all too easy to foresee headlines like “Corporation Backs Out of Industry Deal; Thousands of Farmers Stranded,” isn’t it? If it’s Black Belt land that’s being risked by planting Arundo all over it, our Black Belt landowners had better get something in return. I’m hoping landowners can find a way to get the plant the industry the Arundo it needs. But if there’s no legal recourse in the event the plant “suddenly” doesn’t get built or somehow fails economically, I don’t know if anyone can blame them before balking at signing on the dotted line.