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Fertilizer plant planned for Grand Forks will minimize plumes

Todd Feland

The group planning to build a nitrogen fertilizer plant in Grand Forks will spend an additional $9 million to mitigate effects on a nearby airport.

The Northern Plains Nitrogen plant will use an upgraded cooling tower system in order to reduce the amount of time its plumes will affect plane traffic patterns at the Grand Forks International Airport a few miles away.

In an earlier study, the plumes were predicted to affect airport traffic patterns 2.64 percent of the time. A new cooling tower design will reduce the impact to .62 percent of the time, according to a consultant report provided by the city.

"We believed an extra measure of caution was needed to ensure the safety of the students at the (UND) flight school," said Calvin Coey, NPN project manager. He said the Federal Aviation Administration has already concluded the plant wouldn't pose a hazard to air navigation.


A letter written in September by Grand Forks Regional Airport Authority Interim Executive Director Mary Jo Crystal states the plant's abatement technology will affect its visual plume but not the thermal plume.

"Consequently, in either case, the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences will be required to make changes to existing procedures," she wrote to City Administrator Todd Feland.

But Bruce Smith, dean of the aerospace school, said he was appreciative of Northern Plains' willingness to work with other stakeholders, and said "the whole intent is to keep it so it doesn't impact flight patterns."

"We've had many discussions over the course of the past year," he said. "And that was the hopeful outcome, was that they would be able to provide some technology that would mitigate the plumes and the turbulence because of the proximity of airport."

Crystal's letter concludes that it appears the fertilizer plant "and the airport can co-exist at the proposed distance between the two" provided that Northern Plains uses "available plume-abatement cooling tower technology in a manner that provides the greatest possible mitigation of the plume." She added that airport management, the air traffic control tower and major airport tenants need to have direct contact with the person responsible for the cooling tower system "in the event the visual plume is impacting air traffic or airport operations."

The original cooling tower design was projected to cost $6 million, and the upgraded one will come with $15 million price tag, Coey said. That doesn't include other "operation impacts that aren't completely understood yet which would add into that."

Meanwhile, Northern Plains Nitrogen is continuing to talk to investors in an effort to raise money for the plant, which is projected to cost more than $2 billion. The project received an air quality permit in August, marking its final major regulatory hurdle.

Coey indicated construction could start soon after financing is secured.

"We've got the package pretty well bundled up with everything investors need to look at," Northern Plains Nitrogen CEO Don Pottinger said. "It's a long process. It's not like going down to buy a new pair of shoes."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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