BY RICH JONES
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
With the sun blazing and music blasting, courtesy of the West Greene High School band, hundreds of guests and officials gathered Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the US Nitrogen plant off Pottertown Road.
"This is an incredible turnout," said Tom Ferguson, president and CEO of the Greene County Partnership (GCP).
The festive occasion occurred only five days short of a year from the time that the $220 million project, that is expected to bring a $4 million annual payroll to the county, was announced on Feb. 22, 2011.
Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles called the groundbreaking "a proud moment for our county and citizens."
US Nitrogen is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Austin Powder Company, of Cleveland, Ohio.
The new plant, on a 400-acre site, will be used to manufacture liquid ammonium nitrate.
Austin Powder Company is a major U.S. and international producer of explosive materials used in quarrying, mining, construction, and seismic projects.
The company has emphasized, however, that liquid ammonium nitrate alone -- the product that will be manufactured here -- is neither explosive nor flammable.
A police-led motorcade assembled at 10 a.m. Friday in the parking lot of First Baptist Church in downtown Greeneville and traveled to the 400-acre site off West Seven Springs Lane in the Midway community.
Included in the motorcade were gleaming red and silver Austin Powder Company 18-wheeler trucks, emblazoned with the company's motto: "Used In 1833 & Ever Since."
A large white tent had been erected for the ceremony on a ridge at the US Nitrogen site in the Midway community, where grading work has already begun.
Several large, yellow pieces of earth-moving equipment were parked in the background at the soon-to-be-busy construction site.
FERGUSON MAKES INTRODUCTIONS
First to speak was Ferguson, who recognized GCP chairman Chuck Whitfield and members of the GCP Board.
He also introduced Mosheim Alderman Tommy Gregg, who was filling in for Mosheim Mayor Billy Myers; Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels, Iliff McMahan Jr., regional director of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TECD); John Abe Teague, assistant to U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, of Johnson City; and David Weems, Greene County Road Superintendent.
Also introduced were Shawn Rana, vice president of Austin Powder Company, and James (Jim) Boldt, vice president and chief financial officer of Austin Powder Company.
Ferguson also recognized nearby property-owners who attended the ceremony, thanking them for their support "in making this project happen."
He also singled out the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) for being "very business-friendly with helping us get this project under way."
Mayor Broyles was introduced by Ferguson and provided insight into the early stages of talks that brought US Nitrogen to Greene County.
"At a time when other counties are struggling, our county is moving ahead, and I'd like to commend our County Commission. They've shown a lot of foresight," Broyles said.
"They [commissioners] handled the questions of their constituents and devoted their time in finding out what US Nitrogen is all about. They played a vital role.
"At the end of the day, we came to know the leaders of US Nitrogen and its parent company, Austin Powder, and we found them a solid and straightforward group of people, and for that we say 'Thank You.'
"Let me say to Shawn Rana and Jim Boldt: 'We really appreciated your candor and devotion to an open public discussion of all issues related to the [US Nitrogen] plant.
"We are all confident US Nitrogen will be a great corporate citizen who will bring quality jobs to our community.
"I'd also like to thank Gov. Bill Haslam and Bill Hagerty (TECD Commissioner) and our state legislative officials for all they did to pave the way through this maze of red tape.
"We Tennesseans pride ourselves on providing a low-tax, business-friendly climate, and the effort of our leaders certainly helped make that possible," Broyles said.
The county mayor continued by turning to Ferguson, saying: "Thank you for helping recruit this fine company to our community."
Broyles then turned toward Rana, the vice president of Austin Powder, saying, "Shawn, we're proud to call you and US Nitrogen members of our community. Thank you for bringing the company to our community. We wish you many happy, successful days ahead."
Following applause for Broyles' comments, Ferguson brought State Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-11th, of Cosby, and State Sen. Steve Southerland, R-1st of Morristown, to the podium.
Faison read an official proclamation from Beth Harwell, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, welcoming US Nitrogen to Tennessee.
Faison and Southerland then presented an American flag and a Tennessee flag to Rana, "to fly proudly when you get your first flag pole," Faison said.
Southerland told the crowd packed into the tented area that: "What the people want is 'jobs, jobs, jobs,' and it took everybody, and when everybody works together, this is what you get -- and we want to thank you," Southerland said.
State Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, could not attend the groundbreaking due to a family commitment, Ferguson announced.
SHAWN RANA SPEAKS
Next to the podium was Rana, who introduced US Nitrogen personnel: Richard Bartley, site manager, who will later become plant manager; Kimberly Ryans, US Nitrogen lab supervisor; and Chassity Bird, the first local employee hired by US Nitrogen.
"We're very happy to be a part of this community and thankful to the Greene County Partnership for making this possible," Rana said.
"Our formal entry to the community actually happened a year ago, when Jim and I met with local leaders.
"They asked some tough questions, and I think we gave some good answers.
"They [the Greene County Commission] passed the zoning for our plant by a unanimous vote, and Gov. Haslam was here to help make the announcement."
Rana thanked the county's elected officials. He also thanked Congressman Roe, saying he had been very helpful.
"This illustrates that government and business can work together," Rana said.
"I know there are high expectations for us, and we will work to fulfill them.
"In about 20 months a state-of-the-art facility will stand on this site, and I hope you all will be here to join us for the ribbon-cutting," Rana concluded.
DR. KILGORE SPEAKS
Finally, Dr. James Kilgore, president and CEO of Free Will Baptist Family Ministries, was asked by Ferguson to come to the podium to tell of his "tie to this company," and to offer a prayer.
"This is a great day for Greene County," Dr. Kilgore said.
"Austin Powder for many years has provided jobs for my hometown, Wise County, Va., my friends and family in Wise County.
"I can assure you today we have a great company and corporate friend in Austin Powder.
"My family and my friends are very appreciative to Austin Powder and what they have done there [in Wise County]," Kilgore told the crowd.
In his prayer, Dr. Kilgore said:
"Father we gratefully say, 'thank you.'
We thank you for this beautiful day.
I pray your blessings on this project,
We pray for the construction workers, that you keep them safe.
Bless this county, our leaders and the leaders of this company."
Kilgore, in a later interview with The Greeneville Sun, said that his father, Harold Kilgore Sr., had worked for a coal company in Wise County and frequently did business with Austin Powder during the 1970s and prior to that.
He also said that the company was a longtime provider of jobs in that county, including for friends and members of his own family.
"They had a big presence in Virginia," he said.
CFO GIVES PRAISE
Boldt said that he estimates the plant will be open by the fourth quarter of 2013 or early 2014.
He also singled out Ferguson for being the person who was "the sharp end of the spear" in bringing US Nitrogen to Greene County.
The executive also praised Jerry Fortner, president of C&C Millwright Maintenance Co., Inc., and J&J Warehousing, for being "a tireless advocate for the local community."
WHAT COMES NEXT
Rana said that Summers-Taylor Inc. will handle all site-grading work on the $220 million project.
Following the grading comes the concrete work for the five buildings that will be erected on the site.
Some of the large equipment now being built for the facility is in Houston, Texas, and will arrive later this year, Rana said.
Some design work still remains to be done in Houston while other design work is under way in Atlanta for the project, Rana said.
When operational, the US Nitrogen plant will have a full-time workforce of 80 employees with jobs paying an average of $50,000 a year, company officials have said.
The company will purchase massive amounts of electricity, water and natural gas:
* an estimated $18 million annually in natural gas;
* an estimated $5 million annually in electricity; and
* an estimated $1 million annually in water.
WHAT PLANT WILL DO
U.S. Nitrogen eventually plans to produce 420 tons of liquid ammonium nitrate per day at the plant.
Nitric acid and ammonia will also be produced at the plant for use in production of the ammonium nitrate.
When the plant is fully operational, plans call for about 20 truckloads of the liquid ammonium nitrate to leave the facility each day for facilities in other states.
'NEITHER FLAMMABLE NOR EXPLOSIVE'
The ammonium nitrate solution that will be manufactured here is known as ANSOL or ANS.
It will be produced for use by Austin Powder -- when combined with other substances under certain conditions -- as an ingredient in explosives.
Company officials have repeatedly stressed in response to some local concerns about safety, however, that, by itself, the liquid ammonium nitrate is neither flammable nor explosive.
After being manufactured here, they explain, the liquid product would be transported to other company plants elsewhere for combination with other ingredients to form material for use as explosives.
"While we are an explosives company, we aren't going to be making exposives here. I think that's an important thing to realize," Boldt said last February.
"I want everyone to be reassured about that," Boldt emphasized.
Company officials have explained that the liquid ammonium nitrate made at the US Nitrogen plant will be transported by highly-trained company drivers operating specifically-designed tanker trucks.
The trucks will be designed to keep the product hot as it is shipped to Austin Powder manufacturing sites in other states.
Some of the finished product will also be transported in special rail cars.
The plant will include a 2-to-3-story cooling tower, will require 800 gallons of water per minute, around-the-clock and seven days a week, for 340 days each year.
The plant will buy its water from the Town of Mosheim, which in turn purchases its water from the Greeneville Water Department.