Cautious optimism. Those two words best describe how people in Mason County and elsewhere should approach last week's announcement that Domestic Synthetic Fuels plans to build a coal-to-liquid fuels plant along the Ohio River north of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

DS Fuels has a purchase agreement with the Mason County Economic Development Authority to acquire 200 acres for $2.8 million.

"Unlike prior coal-to-liquids projects proposed in the Mountain State, this is going to happen," Kevin Whited, the lead developer for DS Fuels, told The Herald-Dispatch reporter Fred Pace last week. "We have the money, we have the technology, and we have the expertise."

Construction could begin in October - that's four months from now - and the plant could be in operation by late 2022 or early 2023. It is expected to use about 2,500 tons of thermal coal - the kind burned in power plants, which is a declining market for coal - from Kanawha County and 23 million cubic feet of natural gas per day to produce more than 450,000 gallons of product each day.

Whited said the plant will create 130 full-time jobs, not counting thousands of temporary construction jobs. More than 100 mining jobs will be created, he said.

Before construction can begin, the company must have its environmental permit applications approved by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The plant will emit carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and materials. All are under the threshold of acceptable levels, according to the permit application.

The public comment period ends 5 p.m. Thursday, July 18.

The fact that coal is involved will invite opposition, as the mining and use of coal is one of the most contentious issues in West Virginia. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has already come out in opposition to the DS Fuels plant.

"We have concerns about this coal-to-liquids plant along the Ohio River," Robin Blakeman, an OVEC project coordinator, said. "So many folks depend on the Ohio River for their drinking water and are concerned about what this plant would do to the water, air and other pollution issues."

She added, "We believe this plant will add to the pollution of the Ohio River. Pollution that enters the river upstream can impact communities downstream, which is why we need consistent, strong protections to protect people no matter where they live along the river. This is the reason I am urging everyone to submit their concerns to the WVDEP. We will be requesting a public hearing on this project as well."

Whited said DS Fuels plans to have a series of community open house meetings to explain the project and its benefits to the community. The dates of those meetings have not been announced.

Until all facts are reviewed and all voices are heard, it's too early to judge whether the plant will be a net benefit or a detriment to this region. The public has heard stories about coal-to-liquids projects before. As with many proposals involving new products or new technologies, good ideas often fail the test of basic economics.

People in Mason County and elsewhere can be optimistic about the future of this plant, but the burden will be on DS Fuels to show that this is not an empty hope.

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