BY RICH JONES
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
US Nitrogen officials addressed safety issues related to water and air quality, chemicals at the site, and the company's management standards during wide-ranging interviews with The Greeneville Sun in the past week.
The $235-million construction project off Pottertown Road has approximately a year left in construction, said Project Manager Justin Freeark.
The wet weather this spring has not helped.
Freeark, a chemical engineer, said that 125,000 feet of piping remains to be put in place, along with 7,500 valves, a project with "a great deal of complexity."
He was joined on Monday by US Nitrogen Safety Manager Jeff Creel in addressing various issues linked to the plant and its construction.
DIFFERENT FROM TEXAS
The officials were asked to comment on some concern in the community following national news reports about the April 17 incident in West, Texas, where anhydrous ammonia was reported at the time to be involved in an explosion that killed at least 16 people and injured more than 160.
Anhydrous ammonia will be used in the production process at the US Nitrogen facility.
"First, there is an overwhelming misconception that anhydrous ammonia was the source of the detonation [at the plant in Texas]. It was not," said Freeark.
"The aerial views of the detonation clearly indicate [that] the blast area, according to preliminary reports, was away from the anhydrous [ammonia]," Freeark said.
The more important point though, he continued, is the difference between US Nitrogen and the Texas site.
"This [US Nitrogen] facility is a manufacturing facility, not a supply facility as was the case in Texas," Freeark said.
The West Fertilizer Company was built in 1962, and was last inspected by OSHA in 1985, according to reports by the Associated Press.
US Nitrogen does not make fertilizer.
"We have a great deal more knowledge of the nature and hazards of ammonia, unlike at the Texas site," Freeark said.
Further, he said, "Our tanks [for ammonia storage] are remote from any sources of combustion.
"They [the tanks] are protected from overpressure by a release system which includes a flare to destroy any ammonia" if need be, Freeark said.
ACREAGE OFFERS SECURITY
The project manager also said the 490-acre US Nitrogen site allows for security.
Part of that security, Freeark said, is having a land buffer for safety, "making sure we don't have a Texas incident with an apartment complex nearby."
In addition, security personnel are at the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike at the Texas site, Freeark noted.
Moreover, at US Nitrogen a fence encloses "the plant proper," the smaller area inside the 490-acre site in which the actual production takes place.
Creel, the safety manager, emphasized that, unlike the Texas facility, US Nitrogen will have onsite first responders, trained for hazmat [hazardous materials], trained for high-angle rescue and advanced extrication.
"My background includes firefighting and paramedics," Creel said. "We'll make our capabilities as robust as possible."
Creel's most recent job prior to joining US Nitrogen was regional safety manager for the TVA's coal-burning power plants in Middle and West Tennessee.
He is a graduate of the Alabama Fire College and also the Florida Fire College.
Company officials have often said during the past two-and-a-half years that they will work to surpass the standards for safety that are set by governmental regulatory agencies.
In the interview Monday, Freeark and Creel said that OSHA requirements pertaining to dealing with chemicals are basic, minimal standards.
"Our philosophy is that we're going to exceed that standard," Freeark said.
Company officials said the new plant is being built with the goal of attaining status in OSHA's more stringent "Voluntary Protection Program" (VPP), a goal that industries may choose to strive for.
US Nitrogen is doing just that.
VPP promotes worksite safety and health, according to the OSHA website.
In the VPP, management and OSHA establish workplace relationships and a comprehensive safety and health management system.
VPP approval is OSHA's official recognition of exemplary occupational safety and health.
Similarly, Tennessee's highest award for workplace safety and health is the Volunteer STAR (Safety Through Accountability and Recognition) award.
Only 37 companies in Tennessee have received STAR Certification. Two of them -- DTR Tennessee, Inc., and John Deere Power Products -- are in Greene County.
US Nitrogen, from the start of construction, is seeking to join that elite group, along with OSHA's VPP status, company officials said this week.
As for other safety factors, Creel emphasized that US Nitrogen will have an onsite fire response unit and hazmat unit, trained in the use of high-angle rescue equipment.
No other local industry has that, Creel noted.
Additionally, the plant has a working agreement with the Greeneville Fire Department and the Midway Volunteer Fire Department.
Creel reports directly to Freeark.
Although Creel oversees safety efforts, Freeark also has extensive experience in the safety field.
He said he was instrumental in developing process safety programs for two previous employers -- Apache Nitrogen Products, in Benson, Ariz., and Celanese Corporation, in Mobile, Ala.
Freeark, earlier in his career, had hazmat level A certification, he said.
Officials were asked about challenges that US Nitrogen faces when it comes to the use of water, disposal of chemicals, and protection of the water table, and measures the company is taking to avoid water and air pollution.
"We are not going to discharge anything into the ground," Freeark said.
Or, as Hollie Binkley, US Nitrogen Environmental Manager, said in a Tuesday interview: "We don't have any chemicals to dispose of, because everything we make, we use, or ship out."
HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
Here's how the process works.
US Nitrogen is in business to make liquid ammonium nitrate.
Ammonium nitrate is produced by combining nitric acid and anhydrous ammonia.
That process creates ammonium nitrate -- and heat.
During the process to create the ammonium nitrate, 100 percent of the nitric acid and anhydrous ammonia is consumed, said Freeark, a chemical engineer.
Therefore, no chemical byproduct exists to be disposed of, because none exists. That's because it was consumed during the process that created the ammonium nitrate.
What about the heat? The answer is that the heat is offset -- cooled down -- by the massive amounts of water that US Nitrogen will send through miles of cooling pipes.
On cold days in the winter, the end result of that cooling part of the process will be seen as simple water vapor rising from the plant's 14-story-high cooling tower, company officials have said.
What about the ammonium nitrate produced?
It will be shipped out via company trucks to other facilities out of state operated by Austin Powder Company, the parent company of US Nitrogen.
TANK TO AVOID SURGES
"Obviously the facility has tremendous heat load," Freeark said. "Working with the Old Knox Water District, we're putting in a dedicated two-million-gallon storage tank to minimize surges on the Old Knox system.
"We are working with Mosheim to upgrade the wastewater system," Freeark said, emphasizing once more that nothing will be discharged into the ground as the cooling water moves to the wastewater treatment facility.
Binkley was asked by The Greeneville Sun if there were any chemicals in the water, or any chemicals placed in the water during the process to make the ammonium nitrate.
She said the water being used is purchased from the Old Knox Water District and is no different from water going to any other customer.
She said basic water treatment chemicals -- water softeners, such as a homeowner might use -- are introduced to reduce mineral buildup in the pipes.
"We'll be monitoring all the Tennessee Division of Water Pollution Control guidelines for disposal of effluent water to make sure we're meeting standards," Binkley said.
Oversight of this function will be Binkley's responsibility.
She is also US Nitrogen's technical contact in working with state and federal agencies on water and air issues.
Before joining US Nitrogen, Binkley was environmental health and safety manager for Pfizer Pharmaceutical (formerly King Pharmaceuticals), in Bristol, Tenn.
Prior to that, she was director of environmental health and safety at Jarden Zinc Products, the former Ball Zinc Products, which is located in Afton.
Binkley is a Certified Professional Environmental Auditor.
She is a graduate of Greeneville High School and has a master's degree in environmental health from East Tennessee State University.
As for air quality, US Nitrogen applied for and received a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) air quality construction permit, Binkley said.
This type of construction permit undergoes the most rigorous analysis that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) processes, and is done with close consultation and oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Binkley said.
"Our emissions are well below industry average," Freeark said on Monday.
In followup interviews later in the week, Freeark and Binkley described those emissions and explained the manner in which US Nitrogen has been approved to safely dispose of them.
* The nitric acid production unit at US Nitrogen has a greenhouse gas emission, known as N2O, or nitrous oxide.
Nitric acid is formed by the reaction of ammonia and oxygen (from air) in the presence of a catalyst.
The byproducts from the formation of nitric acid are mainly nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water.
"We're one of the first facilities in the nation to install a device similar to a catalytic converter to destroy the N20 (nitrous oxide) by breaking it back down into nitrogen and oxygen," Freeark said.
That will occur during the production process, he said, and the nitrogen and oxygen will be dispersed harmlessly back into the environment.
* NOX (nitrogen oxide) emissions are contributors to smog and air quality problems. Uncontrolled, NOX emissions can affect air quality.
However, like the N2O, the NOX will be controlled at US Nitrogen by state-of-the-art technology, reducing the amount emitted to below EPA's New Source Performance Standards (NSPS).
EPA has reduced the emission limits for nitric acid production from 3 pounds of NOX per ton of acid to 0.5 pounds of NOX per ton of acid, Freeark said.
"We expect to be in the .2 to .3 range," which will be below the EPA standard of 0.5, Freeark said.
* The ammonia production units at the US Nitrogen plant will have a CO2 (carbon dioxide) emission.
CO2 is a greenhouse gas.
"We are working with two potential industrial partners to recover and reuse the CO2 (carbon dioxide) for use in the industrial gas market," Freeark said, although there is no EPA requirement to so.
CLEAN AIR STANDARDS
The two officials were asked if regulatory agencies consider the issue of a cumulative volume of air contaminants in the area of a particular plant that has applied for a permit.
In this situation, for example, Freeark and Binkley were asked if the regulatory agencies would have taken into consideration the cumulative air-quality impact of the various manufacturing plants in the area of western Greene County where the US Nitrogen plant is located.
They replied that, as part of the permit application process, US Nitrogen performed air dispersion modeling which included the potential emissions from the US Nitrogen facility as well as the emissions from the existing facilities within the area, to determine the cumulative air quality impact.
Freeark and Binkley went on to say that US Nitrogen emissions will meet the EPA's Best Available Control Technology (BACT) standards.
As part of the application process, a facility performs an analysis to determine BACT and proposes an emission limit to EPA, which has the final approval.
Each case is evaluated on the basis of its own circumstances, they said, and the regulatory agency reaches a decision about what the BACT will be for the pollutants at that location.
This approach is applied to all polluting sources that fall under the New Source Review guidelines, they said.
When a BACT determination is made by the agency, they added, factors that the EPA has considered in reaching its decision include:
* regional environmental impact;
* total source emissions;
* energy consumption; and
US Nitrogen's parent company, Austin Powder Company, "has been very supportive of our efforts to dot every 'i,' cross every 't.' To check, and double-check," Freeark said in regard to safety.
"It's important to do this project right, rather than fast," he said.
Added Creel, the safety manager, "Our goal from a safety standpoint is to be world-class.
"We want to lead the industry in safety. And we're going to do everything in our power to do that."