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ConAgra balks at fertilizer plant location

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

ConAgra Foods has appealed an air-quality permit approved for a proposed fertilizer plant planned for American Falls.

AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Businessmen backing a planned $2.1 billion fertilizer plant here expect to have the necessary down payment and loans secured by this fall and say they’re on schedule to meet most other goals.

However, the community’s major employer, ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, has dealt the Texas-based applicant, Magnida, an unexpected blow. ConAgra has appealed the air quality permit the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality awarded Magnida on April 21.

The complaints will be considered by a hearing officer, who will have up to six months to make a decision. His judgment could still be appealed to Idaho’s Board of Environmental Quality, district court and ultimately the Idaho Supreme Court, though an IDEQ air permit has never been overturned.

ConAgra’s American Falls plant manager, Fred Webb, told a large crowd gathered for a June 11 Magnida presentation at the local library his company supports a fertilizer plant, but the chosen site is much too close to his facility. He said some of his company’s concerns relate to “process odors, emergency preparedness and groundwater issues.”

“Our perspective is let’s build the fertilizer plant. Let’s not build it 500 yards from our door where there could be a potential for impact,” Webb said.

Jordan Gehring, a local farmer who serves on Magnida’s community liaison group, believes a fertilizer plant would be good for Power County but worries about any negative impact on ConAgra, which has operated in the community for 50 years and employs 600 workers.

“This is a huge project to lose, but to put it right next door to the most important business in the county? I wonder if there would be a better spot to put it,” Gehring said.

He also wonders if state officials could expedite relocation work.

Magnida’s project manager, Ric Sorbo, however, was adamant that moving is not an option, as Magnida would forfeit much of the $40 million it’s already invested in engineering, testing, securing water rights and other preparations, and it would delay construction by at least two years, giving an advantage to competing fertilizer plants proposed in Indiana and North Dakota.

Sorbo said Magnida has met with ConAgra and is willing to revise its designs to accommodate the potato processor’s concerns. As proposed, he said, the fertilizer plant would produce no detectable odor, would discharge no wastewater and would only handle volatile ammonium nitrate in a dilute liquid form. Magnida would invest more than $100 million in emissions-control technology.

“I remain very optimistic that we’re going to be able to figure this thing out,” Sorbo said.

Sorbo said a large international bank is interested in financing the project, and KBR and Bechtel are bidding competitively to build it. Magnida is in final discussions for an annual supply of $120 million in natural gas, which would be the major feedstock. Each year, the plant would produce in excess of 1 million tons of ammonia, urea, UAN and diesel exhaust fluid for regional use.

Sorbo said 160 workers would be needed to staff the plant, with hiring starting in early 2015 and construction commencing in the middle of next year. It could be operational by 2017.


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