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Published May 14, 2013, 09:19 AM

ND fertilizer plan a ‘monstrous challenge’

By: Chris Bjorke, Forum News Service

The CEO of a group planning to build a $1.5 billion fertilizer manufacturing plant near Grand Forks, N.D., said the venture is focusing on investment, engineering and its workforce in the early phases of the four-year project.

“It’s a monstrous challenge,” said Don Pottinger, head of Northern Plains Nitrogen, discussing the tasks of finding the people who can design a build a facility to supply liquid fertilizer to a market in the Upper Midwest and central Canada. “This is not like building a Walmart.”

Northern Plains has a board of three veterans from the businesses of fertilizer production and marketing, and natural gas, along with a board of directors. The project was started as a collaboration among the North Dakota Corn Growers Association and other farm groups.

The project’s principals announced their selection of a site northwest of Grand Forks last week.

Workers needed

Pottinger said the company has been courting potential investors in the plant, including a group of Chinese investors on a visit to Grand Forks.

The company is also searching among the few firms in the world capable of doing the design and engineering for a plant of its scale to carry out the project.

Northern Plains plans to begin construction in 2015, and Pottinger, said they are already considering where they would find the 2,000 workers they expect they will need to build it.

“We’re a long way from worrying about where to put them, but where do you find them?” he said, referring to a question of where the workers would live.

Safety concerns

The proposed plant would require 4,000 gallons of water per minute, and Northern Plains plans to contract with the city of Grand Forks to use wastewater from municipal sewage lagoons along with a smaller amount of potable water.

Pottinger said the group was attracted by North Dakota’s regulatory and business environment, but said that did not mean they would not be subject to strict regulation.

“We’re not saying we can glide under the radar and do things we can’t do elsewhere,” he said. “It’s not an attempt to be what you can’t be elsewhere and be sleazy or unsafe.”

He said the April explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, was caused in part by keeping highly explosive ammonium nitrate on the premises.

“The West, Texas, incident is unusual,” he said. “I’m surprised they actually stored solid ammonium nitrate.”

Pottinger, who has a background in the fertilizer industry as a consultant and working in production in Manitoba, acknowledged that the products are dangerous, but safeguards exist to control leaks or spills.

“When it’s handled properly, there’s no danger,” he said. “The chances that you’re able, environmentally and operationally, to be the safest in the world are pretty high.”