OXFORD, N.C. — It's fast-growing and drought-tolerant, producing tons of biomass per acre. It thrives even in poor soil and is a self-propagating perennial, so it requires little investment once established.
To people in the renewable fuels industry, Arundo donax — also known as giant reed — is nothing short of a miracle plant. An Oregon power plant is looking at it as a potential substitute for coal, and North Carolina boosters are salivating over the prospect of an ethanol bio-refinery that would bring millions of dollars in investment and dozens of high-paying jobs to hog country.
But to many scientists and environmentalists, Arundo looks less like a miracle than a nightmare waiting to happen. Officials in at least three states have banned the bamboo-like grass as a noxious weed; California has spent more than $70 million trying to eradicate it. The federal government has labeled it a high risk for invasiveness.
Many are comparing Arundo, which can reach heights of 30 feet in a single season, to another aggressive Asian transplant — the voracious kudzu vine.
More than 200 scientists recently sent a letter to the heads of federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, urging them not to encourage the commercial planting of known invasives like Arundo.
Many of today's most problematic invasive plants — from kudzu to purple loosestrife — were intentionally imported and released into the environment for horticultural, agricultural, conservation, and forestry purposes, they wrote Oct. 22. It is imperative that we learn from our past mistakes by preventing intentional introduction of energy crops that may create the next invasive species catastrophe particularly when introductions are funded by taxpayer dollars.
Mark Conlon, vice president for sector development at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford, hates the comparison with the weed that ate the South.
There's no market for kudzu, says Conlon, who is among those promoting a proposed $170 million, 20 million-gallon-a-year ethanol project here — and Arundo's role in it.
His message about Arundo: It'll be different this time. We can control it.
But Mark Newhouser, who has spent nearly 20 years hacking this nasty plant from California's riverbanks and wetlands, has his doubts.
Why take a chance? he asks.
Arundo has become naturalized in 25 warmer-weather states, according to a USDA weed risk analysis released in June.
In banning it, California, Nevada and Texas have said the plant crowds out native species and consumes precious water.
The Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a Significant Threat. Virginia officials have labeled it moderately invasive. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has categorized giant reed as occasionally invasive. But that might change if it were to be promoted as a commercial crop, says Elizabeth Byers, a vegetation ecologist with the agency's wildlife diversity unit.
I certainly wouldn't want to see any invasive species used as biomass, she says. Because they can escape.
Attempts to commercialize Arundo donax in other parts of the U.S. have met with limited success.
When a company proposed to use Arundo for power generation in Florida, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services drafted regulations requiring permits for plots larger than 2 acres. Although some permits have been issued, the large-scale project that prompted the regulations never materialized.
And when Portland General Electric decided to convert a power plant from coal to biomass, Oregon state agriculture officials conducted a risk assessment for Arundo. Last year, the state authorized a 400-acre control area, prohibiting plantings within a mile of water bodies and requiring growers to post a $1 million eradication bond.
In a statement released last March, the Native Plant Society of Oregon accused the state of understating the risks. It cited research suggesting that Arundo's sterile seeds might, through genetic modification, become fertile.
In January, the EPA gave Arundo preliminary approval under the federal renewable fuel standard program — meaning producers could qualify for valuable carbon credits. When environmental groups complained that the decision was at odds with an executive order aimed at preventing the spread of invasive species, the agency agreed to re-evaluate the crop.
EDF Southeast Director Jane Preyer wonders if a hurricane-prone state like North Carolina is the smartest place to grow such a crop on so large a scale. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused widespread flooding that put much of eastern North Carolina under several feet of water.
Arundo, she says, appears not worth the risk.
It's naive to think man can truly control nature, says Newhouser in California.
You know, that's the thing with weeds. They know no boundaries, and they don't recognize fences. They don't follow rules.