BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
WEVER – On the heels of the announcement Monday indicating the Iowa Fertilizer Company’s Wever, Iowa facility is 98% complete, the company’s president said Wednesday this month’s deep freeze about two weeks ago did point out a few issues, but nothing has derailed the plant’s progress and full production should begin in the first quarter.
“If you look back we had a -8 degree night a week and half a back, said Larry Holley, president of Iowa Fertilizer Co. “We had frozen up in some of the minimal water lines for the most part. We had to go back and do some corrections on those lines. It was because our insulation and our heat tracing was not complete to 100%. When you have that kind of wind on that cold of a night it points those out to you. Those lines will readily freeze if you don’t have them insulated and heat traced. It took us a couple of days to make those repairs, but it was nothing serious.”
Tracing is the process of either using steam tracing or electrical heating to supply heat to keep the pipes and tubing from freezing, and then insulate over that to make them efficient in the cold temperatures.
Holley said the cold weather also puts a damper on production efficiency, but the winter weather a couple years ago was even worse and the construction workers who aren’t from Iowa have a more difficult time in the cold temps and wind.
“Well, of course if you live in Iowa you get used to functioning in cold temperatures, but if you are not from here you don’t do very well. Any time you have that kind of wind chill it costs us efficiency. You don’t get as much done as on a nicer evening because you have to take care of those employees,” Holley said.
With more than 200 full-time employees already in the field at the facility working hand-in-hand with the construction teams to keep up to speed with operations, the plans are for the plant to fully come on line in the first quarter of the year.
IFC is a subsidiary of OCI N.V. a global fertilizer company that can produce nearly 8.4 million metric tons of nitrogen fertilizers and industrial chemicals at production facilities in the Netherlands, the United States, Egypt and Algeria. According to the company’s website, expectations for total production in 2017 is set to exceed 12.5 million metric tons.
“The construction of this facility is a critical milestone in the agriculture sector. But it’s a milestone we wouldn’t have been able to reach without the extra support we’ve received from the state,” said Holley. “That starts with Governor (Terry) Branstad, (Lt. Gov.) Kim Reynolds and Debi Durham (Director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority) and the locals in Lee County, the Lee County Economic Development Group, Fort Madison Partners, Board of Supervisors. This would not have been possible without all the great support and commitment we’ve had across the board to construct there in Lee County. I was with (Gov. Terry Branstad) about three weeks ago and I told him this, ‘We’re going to have safe operations, and we’re going to be environmentally sound, and we’re gonna be a good neighbor. And then after that, we’re gonna make some fertilizer…but in that order. And as we get ready for the planting in the spring, I just couldn’t be more excited.”
The $2 billion project, which was hampered in the spring by lawsuits, liens and talk of investigations and defective work, is so close to complete, Holley said it’s difficult to define.
“We’re moving rapidly toward an operating facility and we’ll see that take place in the first quarter of the coming year,” he said. We’re continuing to say were 98% complete, but were so close to complete its hard to measure at this point. We’re deeply into pre-commission and commission phases of the production process and looking at full ammonia production in the first quarter and then downstream production after that.”
By downstream Holley said the plant will be able to see other products as part of the process of creating the nitrogen based fertilizer. Those products include gases produced and captured during the fertilizer processes, but he said thoughts of those products will begin after the plant has been up and running full scale for several weeks.
Regarding the early spring setbacks, Holley said nothing was out of the ordinary considering the scope of the project.
“When you’re building a facility of this size and involving 5,000 people on site from time to time, and you have complexity that reaches several continents and the design and engineering of a facility like this, it involves a lot of people. What we’ve seen is not unusual for this size of a project. I’ve been in the nitrogen business for 40 years. We’re in a very good position to move forward. We’ve spent $2 billion plus and nothing is stopping this facility from coming on line.
“The annual payroll projections are at $25 million, maintenance budget is at $25 million and those expenditures are going to go on forever. We’re the most efficient nitrogen fertilizer plant in the U.S. In Iowa alone we farm 30 million acres and this country still imports about 1/3 of its nitrogen fertilizer. We’re going to be backing out imports. We’re in the best location in the corn belt and the part that uses the most fertilizer. It’s an obvious win-win for this facility and the community.”
Staffing levels currently sit right at 200, he said, but in the end the facility will probably have 210 full time employees as a handful of interviews are still underway. At one point there were more than 3,500 construction contractors on the site, but Holley said that number has dwindled to about 1,200 to 1,400 as of today and that number keeps falling.