Simplot’s fertilizer plant dominates the skyline south of Rock Springs where the company plans to spend $350 million to build another factory that would turn natural gas into ammonia. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile — click to enlarge)

State board splits in approving $350 million Simplot ammonia plant

by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
June 10, 2014

Wyoming’s Industrial Siting Council approved Simplot Phosphates, LLC’s permit for a $350 million ammonia plant near Rock Springs on June 4 over an objection that the plant was only about 30 percent designed.

Angus Thuermer Jr.

Six members of the council backed Simplot’s application while one abstained, citing a lack of information. Council member Sandy Shuptrine said it was impossible to make four findings required by law. The seven-member appointed citizen council must issue a permit if it finds that a project meets laws, doesn’t threaten serious injury to the environment and socio-economic fabric, won’t “substantially impair health safety or welfare of inhabitants,” and can be reclaimed.

In the course of about five hours in Rock Springs, however, a handful of witnesses, council members and an attorney representing Simplot couldn’t convince the lone critic.

Gregg Bierei, James Miller, Richard O’Gara, Peter Brandjord, John Corra and Shawn Warner supported Simplot’s permit.

The vote brought polite applause from an audience of about 15, most of whom were company representatives or supporters in local governments. Construction is expected to begin this year, last 25 months and employ up to 460 workers at its peak.

Ammonia is a toxic gas or liquid that is corrosive to tissues and can be fatal in high doses the Centers for Disease Control says. Ultimately, 27 full-time workers will make 600 tons a day of anhydrous ammonia from natural gas. It will be used in Simplot’s existing fertilizer plant next door.

The Simplot fertilizer plant near Rock Springs dwarfs a worker on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Simplot wants to build a $350 million ammonia plant to supply it. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The 20-acre site owned by Simplot is “an ideal location,” said Darin Howe, the company’s environmental health and safety manager in Rock Springs. There is “a significant buffer for public health and safety from populated areas,” he told the council. The site is five miles south of Rock Springs in open, rolling, sagebrush country framed by distant bluffs.

Only 30 percent designed

“I am going to abstain,” Shuptrine said, “for my inability to make the findings due to lack of specificity and the fact there’s only a 30 percent engineering target that’s been met up to this time.”

Simplot’s application runs 385 pages and an additional traffic report is another 162 pages. Simplot’s application is less detailed on potential releases from the ammonia factory.

“There are no anticipated chemical, physical, biological, or radiological discharges associated with construction or operation of the proposed Project that would substantially impair the health, safety, or welfare of the present or expected inhabitants in the area of site influence or the proposed Project area,” it states.

“It’s a total of one sentence,” Shuptrine said of the response. “I just have a hard time believing when we have a 162 page analysis of traffic there just isn’t a little more to say,” about the plant’s dangers.

The dearth of information on the topic is acute for a chemical plant, she said. Simplot will be working with dangerous chemicals, including acids and gases, at high and low temperatures and under pressure, testimony and the application shows.

Nineteen state agencies or departments reviewed the application, all indicating they had no reason to recommend rejection of a permit. The state’s sole witness, Kimber Weichmann, couldn’t say whether a chemical engineer had reviewed the project.

“I wouldn’t have a knowledge who went through the [application,]” she said. Department heads would know, she said. None was present at the Rock Springs meeting.

Simplot representatives could not say what types of hazardous materials might be used in the process of making ammonia out of natural gas. Hazardous materials will be employed as catalysts in the ammonia manufacturing process, the application states.

“The final design of the plant is still pending,” Simplot consultant Joseph Hammond of CH2M Hill said. “Plans are at a high-level, preliminary design.”

A variety of the catalysts “do have heavy metal,” he said. Most would be hazardous, but “generally they’re recycled back through catalyst vendors.”

Recycling only happens every three to 10 years, Simplot safety manager Howe said. “We’re not talking big quantities.”

Darin Howe guides a bus tour through the Simplot fertilizer plant near Rock Springs on Thursday, June 5, 2014. The plant would use ammonia from a $350 million factory planned next door. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“But you don’t know what the quantities are?” Shuptrine said.

“We could get guesses,” Howe said. “Only a percentage of that would be waste. We’re well versed with dealing with them.”

“I’m still not very comfortable,” Shuptrine said.

Vapor cloud main danger

The plant will be designed with safety as its main focus said Roland Ritter, a chemical engineer with Linde Engineering, the German firm that will build the plant. The major risk would be a “vapor cloud release,” he said.

Layers of protection seek to prevent “any type of loss of containment, especially any type of ammonia release into the atmosphere,” he said. Ammonia would be held in a refrigerated rubber-lined steel tank surrounded by a dike.

The non-pressurized storage is “an inherent safe design,” he said. “We are going to install a lot of ammonia detectors.”

A network of pipes, valves and flare stacks up to 180 feet high are part of an automatic safety system that also allows operators to stop or redirect gas and ammonia in the case of a mishap, he said. “It’s going to be a safe plant.”

The plant won’t produce the more volatile ammonium nitrate believed to be involved in an explosion in West, Texas, Ritter and Howe said. In April of 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas killed 15 and injured 160 people, causing damage to more than 150 buildings.

The permit “in no way allows us to make that material,” Howe said.

Council chairman Shawn Warner applauded the measures. “You’ve got terrific redundancy in safety,” he said.

Simplot takes safety and security seriously, including at this entrance to the site of the new ammonia plant near Rock Springs. Ammonia is a toxic irritant that can be fatal. (Angus Thuermer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The plant would make some extra ammonia that would be shipped to another Simplot plant in Idaho. Moving ammonia should not endanger anybody, Howe said. Ammonia has been shipped to the plant by rail for 28 years without incident.

There would be no “substantial impairment” of area residents’ health and safety the company said. Shuptrine asked if there would be “any impairment, and if so, what is it.”

Howe said no, “There is no impairment.”

Phosphate mined for Simplot fertilizer has typical, “low-level” radioactivity, but that’s “not thought to be any type of a concern,” Howe said.

“Any time you mine this ore, it’s going to have some low levels of radioactivity,” he said. Whether there might be “nuclear density devices” or sensors; “I don’t know if there are any for this plant — I don’t think so,” he said.

Workers in flea-bag motels?

Council members quizzed Simplot consultants on the effects 25 months of construction and a workforce of up to 460 persons would have on Rock Springs and Green River. Among the worries are that workers wouldn’t find good housing and that the project would draw craftsmen from other businesses.

A detailed review of available homes and rooms for rent in the area found a surplus, Simplot consultants said. One council member probed for specifics.

“There’s no distinction, no effort to look at the quality of that housing,” council member O’Gara said. Hotels, motels and “flea-bag” establishments “are pulled into this available supply,” he said of housing studies.

“The question is the quality,” O’Gara said. “Are we condemning the workers to having to reside in something less than quality housing?”

CH2M Hill consultant Hammond said no. “I think there’s a surplus of quality housing.”

O’Gara laughed.

Richard O’Gara absorbs testimony along with other members of the council at a hearing about the $350-million ammonia plant on June 4, 2014 in Rock Springs. The council split in approving the project, in part because only about 30 percent of it has been designed. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The council member also sought more information on where workers could come from. About 100 of the construction workers are expected to already live in surrounding communities. Picking up others may be a challenge.

“If [workers] don’t have a job, they don’t hang around Wyoming,” O’Gara said.

“You tend to have a very high pull rate from the local workforce. Are you essentially understating the economic impacts … especially with the skilled workers?”

Some of the workers are expected to come from Simplot’s ongoing expansion of its fertilizer operation, which employs some 200 and is nearing completion.

Rock Springs had 24,047 residents in 2012, according to the U.S. Census.

Let WYDOT deal with traffic

Although council member John Corra quizzed consultants about traffic snarls construction might create, he did not support adding a condition outlining action that would result from tie-ups.

Corra saw “extensive evaluation on traffic … more than everything else,” he said. Simplot voluntarily will look at carpooling and staggered shift schedules.

WYDOT will resolve traffic jams, Council member Jim Miller said.

“Let the DOT take care of their own problem,” he said. “It is not our problem.”

Chairman Warner agreed. “The DOT doesn’t need this council to take care of their issues,” he said.

Compared to projects the council considered in the past, Shuptrine said Simplot’s traffic study is unprecedented.

“Never before have we seen such an extensive transportation analysis,” she said. “Is there a reason we should be worried?”

No, said Simplot engineer Mike Prevedel, “There is not a reason to be worried.”

Shuptrine sought a condition calling for action in the event of a traffic mess. She couldn’t get a second to her motion.

“Once the horse is out of the barn, yes, DOT has to deal with it,” she said. “But it’s an economic and social impact to the community,” and therefore under the purview of the council.

Shuptrine also failed to win a second to a motion seeking to address worries by Wyoming Game and Fish regarding the power and gas lines. Because other agencies have jurisdiction over those aspects of the plant, the council shouldn’t consider them, said Justin Daraie, a lawyer with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office.

Traffic and wildlife worries are “integral to the project itself,” Shuptrine said, and therefore the council should address them.

Simplot still must obtain an air quality permit from the state, which is expected to be issued within a month. It also needs federal approval for a 2.5-mile long natural gas line and an 8-mile electrical transmission line.

The plant would emit 403,654 tons of CO2 equivalent a year, the amount generated annually by 21,701 Americans, according to WyoFile calculations made from public documents and federal reports..

Helping out the community

The $350 million plant will be “the largest single investment Simplot’s ever made in the agribusiness,” Simplot’s Howe said.

The siting council considered the socio-economic effects construction of the plant would have on Rock Springs and Green River as more than 400 workers will look for housing and other services. Rock Springs historic downtown storefronts contrast with a bustling network of highways, strip malls and other residential development. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile — click to enlarge)

The 20-acre plant would generate an estimated $7.9 million in ad valorem tax revenue over the next five years, Simplot says. The company would pay impact assistance funds to local communities, estimated at $383,502 a month, based on a formula that tracks the growth of sales and use taxes. The funds are designed to offset or prevent social disruption  — from traffic to increased crime — caused by large industrial projects.

Those analyzing the application expect a temporary need for nine new teachers and staff, one law enforcement officer about one full-time firefighter. There’s a prediction of 285 additional trips to the emergency room during construction, an increase of 1.4 percent, according to the state documents.

If council members needed any reminder they reside in an industrial state, a talisman in the form of an oil-derrick water fountain gushed the lobby of the Holiday Inn where they held their hearing. Coins lay in the water as they do in wishing wells and fountains.

“Support for this project is a common theme,” Simplot’s attorney Jenifer Scoggin of Holland and Hart said. Backers lined up to agree.

“Sweetwater County does support this project … and asks that you grant the permit,” said Greg Blenkinsop, an attorney with the county. “Simplot has always been a responsible public citizen.”

Rock Springs Mayor Carl Demshar called Simplot “a good corporate citizen.”

Green River city administrator Martin Black said “our housing stock … is sufficient.” The permit also won support from a construction trades group.

There were zero comments from the public, Industrial Siting Division staffer Weichmann said.

Every witness testified that the project met legal requirements for approval and found no reason to recommend denial.

Simplot must show the project “complies with all applicable law,” the council’s charge says. The company meets that standard by showing it “has obtained or is well on its way” to obtaining permits, including from the DEQ air quality division and federal agencies, Scoggin said. Thus, the committee must issue a permit she said.

The council attached 14 conditions — the same ones it routinely puts on projects it considers.

In voting for the permit council member Peter Brandjord said Simplot’s proposal was one of the best applications he had seen.

Read the related “State ready to green-light Simplot Rock Spring ammonia plant,” which includes links to documents and Industrial Siting Council to consider permit for Simplot ammonia plant.”
Angus Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He began reporting at the Jackson Hole News in 1978, and was editor of the Jackson Hole News and Guide prior to joining WyoFile. Contact him at Follow him @AngusThuermer.

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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