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   GRAFTON — A partnership of local businessmen hopes to launch a $3 million to $4 million Asian carp processing facility in February, promising an environmentally safe project they say could salvage the freshwater fishing industry.
    The effort by American Heartland Fish Products LLC is being keenly watched by cities across the United States, who, like Illinois, are fighting to rid their freshwater supplies of the invasive species, which is threatening commercial fishing.
    The southwestern Illinois group received a gigantic boost this year when it landed a worldwide, exclusive carp-processing agreement with Falcon Protein Products Inc. of Auburn, Ala. That company’s patented mechanical process is used to transform the Asian carp into three useable byproducts, without associated wastes.
    American Heartland Chief Executive Officer Gray M. Magee Jr. said Falcon is now a 25 percent partner in the American Heartland group and has a stake in the success of the Grafton venture, which has evolved greatly since the concept was first broached three years ago between local attorney Ben Allen and Magee, who is an Alton native who lived many years in Memphis before moving to Grafton.
    The original partners spent more than a year pursuing the idea of processing the carp for human consumption before concluding the idea was not cost effective. While China was initially envisioned as a potentially lucrative fresh-fish market, no one could figure out a way to cheaply freeze and transport the fish, and China showed little passion for frozen fish. At the time, there was also the question of disposing of fish offal, the leftovers after processing, which would have to be transported to a landfill at no small expense.
    By then, American Heartland partners were stepping up talks with Falcon about its technology. An analysis provided by Falcon scientists — with help from neighboring Auburn University — told the partners that an entire Asian carp could be processed in such a way as to yield byproducts of bone meal, protein meal and fish oil, all of which have ready markets when sold in raw form.
    Bone meal is used in gardening, protein meal is used in animal and fish food, and fish oil is used in cosmetics and personal health products. Asian carp is said to have one of the highest concentrations of the beneficial health ingredient omega-3 of any freshwater fish.
    Armed with that information, American Heartland partners were able to create a business plan that appealed to investors, who liked the byproducts idea, Allen said.
    The plant is being located on a 2-acre site at 20201 State Highway 3. It’s part of a 13-acre industrial park, which in turn is part of 272 acres annexed into the city last year. The industrial park is on the east side of the highway. The rest of the acreage is on the west side of Route 3.
    The city is in the process of receiving an already approved federal grant through the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that will be used to finance a sewer lift station and sewer line. That work will serve the plant and surrounding acreage, which is part of a tax increment financing district authorized by the city last year, Mayor Tom Thompson said. The city engineers are opening bids on the sewer project in December.
    Septic tanks are already in place and conceivably the fish plant could go live while waiting for the sewer work to be done, Magee said.
    The fish plant is being financed through private investment and private and state loans, the men said, declining to be specific.
    American Heartland is reconfiguring a 13,000-square-foot building, an old apple storage facility, to house the machinery coming from Falcon. The equipment will arrive on multiple flatbed trucks and be assembled by Falcon on site.
    The equipment has been shown to effectively process all kinds of fish as well as chickens and pigs, but the Grafton partners plan to rely on Asian carp as long as that supply continues, Magee said.
    Magee has been to Alabama a “half a dozen times” to look over Falcon’s operations, which include the company’s first machine, purchased by Alabama Protein Products and used for processing catfish at an operation in Greensboro.
    Falcon is now building its second unit — Heartland’s — at a site in Birmingham, Ala., patterning it on the unit in Greensboro, with modifications. In that regard, Magee said the partners will benefit from Falcon’s trial and error — and from testing investments that have already been made.
    “It was really blind luck. We pushed to be the first one (operating), and we couldn’t get all financing done (on time) and to our satisfaction. So then we ended up being the second, and that turned out to be good,” he said.
    “Here’s another lucky break for us,” Allen said. “When we started talking with people at Falcon ... we were talking about various business opportunities, not knowing what would work. Auburn had has their scientists and nutritionists take this product, test it themselves and send it to independent labs. That would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars. It’s already been done. I’m not sure we would have had the capital to have all that testing done.”
    The equipment is a mass of galvanized steel that operates “with absolutely no waste at all, liquid or solid,” Magee said.
    Fish are dumped into the unit, “scales, the whole thing,” and are subjected first to a breaker, to break up the fish, some of which can be several feet long and dozens of pounds. From there it goes to a grinder where it’s ground into something like hamburger meat. Then, it goes to a heating area (600 to 800 degrees) to burn off moisture and create a dry product that is then subjected to a press to remove the oil, which is routed to a vat. Then, the product is run through a hammer mill, which continues to pound it, removing the bones and sizing it down.
    “The bone meal goes to the right, the fish meal goes to the left. And those are the products,” Magee said. “It takes about five minutes to get through the whole process.”
    The unit operates within a sealed conveyor system.
    “We’re all basically two-thirds water, and fish are, too. What goes up the stack is basically steam,” Allen said. “We were there (in Greensboro) when they were notified by the state EPA that they didn’t need to be regulated because there are no emissions.”
    That bodes well for compliance in Illinois. Alabama, the second biggest steel-making state in the union, is heavily regulated by the EPA, Magee said.
    The partners expect to make it big, especially in light of what is happening nationally as governments spend millions of dollars trying to address the Asian carp problem. Carp, which are not carnivores, eat plankton, while carnivorous fish only eat plankton while in their juvenile state. That loss of food supply has stunted the growth of many types of freshwater fish and is wreaking havoc in that industry. Add to that the fact that Asian carp spawn at an extraordinary rate.
    Grafton, a town that once had around 20 commercial fishermen, now has only one, Allen said. Some 85 percent of the nets pulled from the river contain Asian carp, a product with little marketability.
    Magee said: “This (plant) will revitalize the commercial fishing industry not just in Grafton but along all these rivers.”
    Some Asian carp have been found as far south as the Intracoastal Waterway near New Orleans.
    “We can build plants along different rivers, all along the Mississippi. We’ve been contacted by Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa to look at the possibility of putting plants in. What we can do is bring (carp) down to a manageable level, which allows the other fish to continue to grow. And that’s how we revitalize commercial fishing,” Magee said.
    “Falcon Protein, I think it’s fair to say, will use this (Grafton) demonstrator as a showpiece for the entire world,” Allen said.
    “It’s so different than any rendering done in the rest of the world,” Magee added. “In little Greensboro, Ala., they’ve had people from Brazil, China, Canada and Mexico come in to look at that plant. In the future this is what rendering will have to do. It’s 100 percent green environmentally. There’s no fish smell, or if you’re doing chicken, no chicken smell. There’s an odor but it’s not obnoxious.
    “There’s no waste or wastewater, which has always been a problem for rendering plants.”
    The Falcon equipment should be in place in Grafton in January.
    “We would hope to be in production sometime in early to mid-February, weather permitting,” Magee said.
    Staffing is still a question, though.
    “That’s to be determined. We won’t know that until we get up and start running,” Magee said. “It will depend on how much fish product we get in and how we ship the finished product.”
    Also to be determined is how many fishermen would be contracted to supply the plant. A lot of fishermen along the Illinois, Wabash and Ohio rivers have been in touch, he said.
    American Heartland has five managing partners, with different percentages of ownership. The only other one from Grafton is Bryon LeBeau. Others have not been publicly identified.
    Auburn University Foundation is a key investor in Falcon and will benefit from successes, Magee said.
    Magee says he can foresee numerous plants built by American Heartland and Falcon, dedicated to carp or any other fish species. Buyers are already lining up for the products, he said.
    “We’re going to expand,” he said confidently. “We’ve already got sights located on the Wabash River, and up by Peoria — not definite, but in our minds as possibilities.”
    “And people who want us there,” Allen added.