Construction could start late this year on the billion-dollar Sun Bio Material pulp mill near Gum Springs. But the building process for the sprawling Clark County complex is expected to begin in earnest early next year.
The project will feature new technology in a configuration that’s never been deployed in the United States before, according to presentations. Noticeably absent from the Sun Bio plant will be the smell associated with conventional pulp and paper mills.
“They’re very happy with how excited everyone is in Arkansas,” said Stephen Bell, president and CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance. “They’re very proud of their company and excited about the project, too.”
Described in presentations as something radically new in the United States, the Sun Bio project is expected to take two years to construct. That translates into a 2020-21 opening in a China-Finland-Arkansas nexus with Chinese ownership using European technology to process pulpwood in Arkansas.
The facility, which will employ 250 when it is fully operational, won’t make fluff pulp used in the production of diapers and sanitary napkins as originally planned. Instead, it will produce dissolving pulp used to make rayon.
The head count of Sun Bio staffers will be about twice the population of the Gum Springs community that lies just to the north of the plant site.
“The talk at first was 50 percent for and 50 percent against,” said Gum Springs Mayor Michael Lester of the project. “I’m all for it. It will help our small community considerably, even though it’s outside our city limits.”
Sheets of dissolving pulp manufactured at the Sun Bio plant will be packed and shipped overseas for further processing into viscose fiber, which in turn can be woven into rayon fabric.
Supplying the pulp mill will be the state’s 19 million acres of timberland, the fourth-largest lumber-producing stand in the nation and second-biggest in the South.
Area economic boosters believe the Sun Bio plant could generate 1,000 jobs in trucking, logging and forestry to feed the facility as much as 4 million tons of pine timber annually.
“We’re still in the pre-engineering, permitting stage,” Bell said. “We’re waiting on the air permit and hoping to see that issued sometime in November.”
The permit application was filed with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in March and deemed administratively complete in May. Logging on the plant site is finished, clearing the way for future construction when the air permit is approved.
Land assembly was all but completed this year. Between Jan. 9 and July 7, the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County invested nearly $3.5 million to buy more than 992 acres for Sun Bio as well as property around it.
In addition to land, the 10 transactions involved two houses, according to Clark County real estate records. Additional land is under option to expand the Sun Bio site to its planned 1,054 acres.
“It seems like a long time since the [April 26, 2016] announcement” of the Gum Springs site selection, Bell said. “But the permitting part of the project is a long process, and it takes time to prepare the paperwork. We’re in the hurry-up-and-wait mode.”
Behind the scenes, design work is underway for the rail system to support the facility.
The Southwest Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority will operate the Sun Bio rail yard, which will connect with Union Pacific Railroad and ultimately with maritime container shipping, mostly back to China.
“It will certainly increase Arkansas exports,” said Mark Hamer, director of international business development for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Sun Bio officials are still working out the details of selling excess power to the grid owned by Entergy and managed by MISO Energy. Steam produced by the plant can generate about 80,000 megawatts of energy.