Plant used as fuel would cause a 'disaster' if it escaped, foes claim
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Conservation groups have called for the Oregon Department of Agriculture and lawmakers to put a halt to an alternative fuel experiment in Eastern Oregon involving Arundo donax, or giant cane.
The groups said Oregon is unequipped to manage A. donax if it escapes and doesn't have adequate information to devise protocols to keep it in check.
"If Arundo donax reaches the Columbia River, it will be a disaster of unimaginable proportions," said Judi Sanders of the Native Plant Society of Oregon.
"We are uncertain about the full scale of cautions that are necessary to prevent this plant from becoming invasive in the state if it does begin to spread," said Lisa DeBruyckere of the Oregon Invasive Species Council.
Their comments to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee came in an information hearing May 21 during legislative interim meetings.
Portland General Electric is experimenting with giant cane with the idea it can be used as a coal substitute to fire its power plant in Boardman, Ore. PGE must cease burning coal at the plant in 2020.
Brendan McCarthy, a government-affairs officer for PGE, said the plant "is an important player" in PGE's energy portfolio. And, he said, giant cane would help the utility meet its renewable fuel standard.
PGE and other large utilities must get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.
Also, McCarthy said, converting the plant to a renewable fuel source will allow the utility to keep it in operation, preserving 110 jobs in Morrow County.
That said, the utility has no intention of introducing an invasive plant to Oregon, he said, and is experimenting with the crop to ensure it can be grown in a safe manner.
Currently PGE is growing the plant on 90 acres near Boardman under restrictions recommended by the Oregon Department of Agriculture and adopted by Morrow County. Among the restrictions is a requirement that that company maintain a distance of one-quarter mile from any wetland or drainage ditch.
The company has stated that it needs 50,000-90,000 acres of the giant cane to create enough biomass to run the plant. Company officials say its irrigation needs are similar to alfalfa.
A. donax flourishes in riparian areas, according to research and historical data.
Cathy Macdonald of the Native Plant society said she supports efforts by PGE to develop a renewable resource to keep the Boardman plant operating past 2020. "But," she said, "we urge them to find a different fuel stock for their plant.
"Even with the best of intentions, it is very challenging to control species for the long haul," Macdonald said.
DeBruyckere called for ODA to place the crop under its regulatory authority and establish an emergency bond that could be used to eradicate the plant if it escapes its control area.
She also called for the state to work with the nursery industry to phase giant cane out of the nursery trade.
Sander and Macdonald urged the state "to reconsider the status of arundo in Oregon" and declare it an invasive species of major economic importance.
"The time to act is now before we invest more money, time effort into planting this invasive species in Oregon," Sander said.
"Arundo will be an invader in Oregon if we continue on the current path," she said.