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BUSINESS ROUNDUP

Bankers support bailout: Most rural bank CEOs surveyed in 11 Midwestern and Plains states support a federal bailout of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the event of financial collapse.

Bankers support bailout: Most rural bank CEOs surveyed in 11 Midwestern and Plains states support a federal bailout of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the event of financial collapse.

But a new report released Thursday said only about 11 percent of the bankers supported such an intervention for investment banks, such as Bear Stearns.

The overall Rural Mainstreet Index was at a weak 41.4, up from June's 40.8, but down dramatically from 54.5 in July 2007. An index greater than 50 indicates a growing economy over the next three to six months.

The Bush administration and the Federal Reserve are putting together a support program for the two mortgage giants, which hold or guarantee more than $5 trillion of the nation's mortgages.

Ethanol project delayed: The delay of a planned 100-million-gallon ethanol plant in Jamestown, N.D.'s energy park is not the only bump in the road for North Dakota's ethanol industry in the past year.

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South Dakota-based VeraSun Energy Corp. late last month said it would delay startup of a 100 million gallon a year ethanol plant at Hankinson, in southeastern North Dakota, citing "current volatility in the market." The company did not say when the plant might begin producing fuel.

Earlier, VeraSun put two other ethanol projects on hold, in Welcome, Minn., and Hartley, Iowa.

The Alchem Ltd. ethanol plant in Grafton, N.D., which opened in 1983 and produced more than 10 million gallons of ethanol a year, suspended operations in October. Harold Newman, Alchem's president, at the time cited the high cost of corn and low prices for ethanol.

In the delay, Newman announced this week that a 100-million-gallon ethanol plant in the Spiritwood Energy Park near Jamestown is on hold.

The Renewable Fuels Association does not include the Grafton plant on its list of U.S. ethanol plants, and Grafton Mayor Todd Burianek and City Administrator Mylo Einarson said the plant remains shut down.

"We still have hopes that they will resume operations, based on what I understand to be significant work out there" at the plant, Burianek said.

Renewable Fuels Association spokesman Matt Hartwig said ethanol plant developers who have not yet begun building, as in the case of the Jamestown plant, are more apt to suspend their plans, especially if they do not have all their financing in place.

Besides the high price of corn, developers of the Jamestown plant cited the lack of an adequate water supply.

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Hartwig said finding a water source large enough to support an ethanol plant is not as big of a headache as it once was. With advances in technology, water use at ethanol plants fell more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2007, he said.

"The plants themselves are becoming more efficient," Hartwig said. "It takes 3 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. That's comparable to gas refining."

The 110-million-gallon a year Tharaldson Ethanol Plant under construction in Casselton, N.D., will use wastewater that Fargo's treatment plant normally discharges into the Red River. Construction started in June 2007, with plans to open in December of this year.

Hartwig said projects such as the Tharaldson plant are part of "the next evolution of the industry."

North Dakota has three other ethanol plants -- in Richardton, Underwood and Walhalla -- that together have the capacity to produce about 125 million gallons of the fuel annually. The Richardton and Underwood plants began operating within the past two years.

Residents fear uranium: Forest Service officials said uranium mining in the Little Missouri National Grasslands is something they have to consider, even though residents said the idea scares them.

Ron Jablonski, the Forest Service district supervisor, told a meeting of area residents this week that it's not a matter of being for or against.

"It's something we're obligated to take a look at," he said. It likely would take 10 years before any mines could be operating, he said. Environmental studies would be needed and the grasslands management plan would have to be changed, he said.

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Formation Resources, a Bismarck-based subsidiary of PacMag Metals Ltd., an Australian company, wants to take dirt samples from 17,000 acres of public grasslands near private land where it already is drilling for uranium and molybdenum.

Uranium is used in nuclear reactors and molybdenum is used to harden steel.

The company also proposes a plant on a railroad siding near Belfield or Bowman, N.D., to treat and burn coal to extract the uranium.

Federal officials discussed the proposal this week with about 30 people at a public meeting in Belfield.

Mark Sexton, the project manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the prospectors plan to use Geiger counters on low-lying areas and then sample a grid if they find hot spots.

"Otherwise, they'd be digging holes from here to eternity," Sexton said.

Formation Resources plans to open pits, uncover coal down to 100 feet and shave off the top where uranium is concentrated.

"I told my husband, if they open mines here, I'll take the children and leave. He didn't like that real much," said Anje Cymbaluk, who lives north of Belfield.

Wayde Schafer, of the Sierra Club, said the health risk from exposed uranium affects humans and wildlife.

"Can you imagine that uranium blowing around in the winds we had last weekend?" he said.

Cymbaluk said pits left open from the last uranium boom in the 1960s and 1970s should be covered before new pits are open.

Whoopers, wind towers: Facing a huge increase in North Dakota's number of wind towers, state regulators promised to pay close attention to projects' potential effects on the whooping crane, a huge bird is in danger of extinction.

"We generally aren't happy until you are," Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer told Jeffrey Towner, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in Bismarck, and Terry Ellsworth, an agency wildlife biologist, at a commission meeting this week.

Most of North Dakota's wind energy projects are outside the normal migratory path that whoopers take from Canada to Texas each year, wildlife officials said.

Those include a planned 200-megawatt project in Barnes County, east of Lake Ashtabula, and a separate development in Griggs and Steele counties in east central North Dakota.

But FPL Energy LLC, of Juno Beach, Fla., recently announced plans to spend $2 billion constructing 667 wind turbines in Oliver and Morton counties that will be capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of power. The project sits in the birds' flyway, Towner said.

"It's an unfortunate convergence of nature, I guess, but we have the high wind potential in the state very closely overlapping this very valuable area of duck nesting habitat and the whooping crane migration corridor," Towner said.

FPL does not intend to file its request for a siting permit until July 2009, and the project is not likely to be finished before December 2012, the company said.

The Fish & Wildlife Service has suggested guidelines to try to minimize the effects on whoopers, ducks and other migratory birds, Towner and Ellsworth said.

Among those are avoiding external ladders and platforms on towers -- which birds can use to nest -- and burying electrical transmission lines so that birds cannot strike them. Birds are killed by power lines much more frequently than by modern wind turbine blades, Towner said.

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