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$5 million awarded for bio-energy plant

A grant for nearly $5 million has been conditionally awarded to The Watershed Research and Training Center for the North Fork Community Power Forest Bioenergy Facility, a 1 MW (megawat) biomass plant which will be built on the old mill site in North Fork. (Once operating, the facility would generate enough electricity to power about 1,000 homes on an annual basis).

The facility will be a demonstration project operated in conjunction with researchers at the University of California who will study how to be more efficient transforming biomass to energy.

“It is a conditional grant,” said Dan Rosenberg, president of the North Fork Community Development Council (CDC) which owns the mill site in trust for the community. “At this point, we don’t know the conditions, which will be based on further dialogue among the principals. We expect that the conditions are doable and will be acceptable to all parties involved.”

The plant will take a year to build although Rosenberg is not sure exactly how soon construction will begin. The plant will ultimately be owned by North Fork Community Power LLC, a corporation owned by the CDC and Phoenix Energy, which specializes in the design and construction of small bio-energy plants. North Fork Community Power will be able to operate the plant right away except for a few weeks every three months while the research is taking place.

A power purchase agreement with PG&E still needs to be acquired. That agreement is necessary to make the plant profitable. Additionally, there will need to be businesses located on the site which can buy power and heat directly from the biomass facility.

One of the many benefits to the entire area is an ecological disposal of forest thinning residue, which can increase forest health and act as a deterrent to fire. The plant should generate 5 to 10 jobs, including the plant operators and transport drivers, as well as forestry people.

“There will be a priority to hire locally,” said Rosenberg, assuring that North CDC will remain a principal controlling entity thereby fulfilling the goal of serving the community.

The grant is the result of many years of work and planning, starting when the CDC was incorporated in June of 1994 to serve as an umbrella organization to develop and improve the economy of North Fork, following the shutdown of the mill in 1994. In 2006, Madera County transferred title to the site to the CDC with the understanding that the CDC would continue the clean up process and meet all county requirements for public works projects.

As reported in a May 12, 2002 edition of the Sierra Star, the county received $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to set up a revolving loan fund to clean up and revitalize underused, abandoned ‘brownfields.” North Fork’s mill site was the first recipient of the funding in 2008 when a major demolition and remediation project was completed at the site. Asbestos and lead paint were removed from the kiln buildings and the buildings were then demolished. The project cost about $800,000 and was funded by a combination of an EPA grant ($200,000) and the Brownfields loan ($600,000).

The first new building in decades on the old mill site was the fire department, which was completed in 2013 through a partnership with the CDC, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, Madera County and the North Fork Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary.

Then came the tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) building, and the tribe’s transportation training center. Recently, the first property has been sold to long time tenant, Crossroads Recycled Lumber. This is the fruition of a long-range plan formulated 12 years ago with a goal of selling parcels on the mill site to help create jobs for the community.

“Our next parcel to sell is five acres of frontage property along Road 225,” said Rosenberg indicating that the property is currently listed.

The CDC has also been awarded a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant for $80,000 which will be used for infrastructure planning on site. This will help the CDC secure county entitlements to continue their re-development of the mill site. The grant does require matching funds, some of which can be in kind.

The site is sporting a new walking trail created by volunteers. Trail signage is the project of a student at Minarets High School and should be in place by May. Rosenberg assured that the green belt along Willow Creek will not be developed. There also will be space devoted to the community, which will include the North Fork History Group and the North Fork Women’s Club.

The North Fork Community Development Council is an umbrella organization made up of volunteers from North Fork civic organizations. Board members include representatives from the Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary, the North Fork Boosters, History Group, the chamber of commerce, the Women’s Club, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, Chawanakee Unified School District, and the Foundation for Resource Conservation.

CDC meetings are the fourth Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. in the board room at the CDC building.

Details: (559) 877-2244, or nfcdc.org.

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