UPDATED: 05/03/2017 — see Change Log
OWNER: US Nitrogen LLC (Austin Powder Company)
PROJECT: Greenfield ammonium nitrate plant
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
US Nitrogen broke ground in February 2012, when it expected its new plant to start up in March 2014 – since then, the project has been fraught with problems. Permits were revised and reissued repeatedly, and the site has had major issues with compliance. The local community demonstrated tremendous resistance, launching permit appeals and a slew of lawsuits, some still ongoing. Construction and design issues led to major delays and lawsuits. The start-up process began in May 2015 but the ammonia plant didn’t start up until June 2016. In August 2016, the site was temporarily shut down and was under federal and state investigation; more emission mishaps occurred in April 2017. The company announced that the plant was fully operational in January 2017 but even now it isn’t clear the plant is producing much if any product.
COST: $225 to $250 million but likely higher (originally $220-$240 million)
JOB CREATION: 80 permanent, 450 construction — see Job Openings [LINK]
START-UP DATE: June 2016, originally March 2014
LIKELIHOOD: Likely — see Methodology
|66,224 mtpy GROSS|
|Nitric Acid||600 stpd||198,637 mtpy GROSS
59,578 mtpy NET
|420 stpd||840 stpd
|72,000 stpy||65,317 mtpy|
|Units: stpd, stpy, mtpd, mtpy = short/metric tons per day/year.
 United States Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Yearbook, Nitrogen gives capacity in metric tons per year, calculated as “engineering design capacity adjusted for 340 days per year of effective production capability,” rounded to three significant digits. Source: most recent year, Table 4: Domestic Producers of Ammonia, http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/nitrogen/.
 Company does not publish capacity data; ANSOL capacity from news reports.
 TDEC, Division of Air Pollution Control, permit documents. Sources: linked below.
 Adjusted Capacity is in metric tons per year assuming operations for 365 days per year; based on permit data except ANSOL end product capacity, based on press reports; net NA capacity based on permit capacity less feedstock for CN and ANSOL. Note: full capacity output of NA, CN, and ANSOL is infeasible given ammonia capacity, and output will be constrained (see maths below). See Methodology.
FEEDSTOCK: Natural gas
END PRODUCTS: Ammonium Nitrate solution (ANSOL), Nitric Acid (US Nitrogen), Calcium Nitrate (Yara), and Carbon Dioxide (Praxair)
US Nitrogen broke ground on its ammonium nitrate solution (ANSOL) plant in February 2012, at which time it expected to start production in March 2014. From the outset, however, the project has been mired in snafus, creating serious delays and a cascade of regulatory and legal disputes.
In January 2017, the company announced that it had reached “full production capacity,” almost three years behind schedule. This, however, appears to have been a highly misleading announcement.
Although US Nitrogen said that its new plant was “capable” of running at full production, documents filed with TDEC in January 2017 demonstrate that the plant has barely been running at all, and certainly not continuously.
US Nitrogen explained that “it is not anticipated that market conditions will allow us to operate the nitric acid plant enough days between now and April 29, 2017,” for the company to measure sufficient continuous days worth of operating data to meet its emissions reporting requirements. US Nitrogen therefore requested an extension of these reporting requirements to the end of December 2017, unless they get the plant running continuously before then. At the end of April 2017, TDEC refused to grant this permit extension and it isn’t clear what the next steps will be.
These delays, and the “market conditions” excuse, would imply a serious problem for any company: not only was the US Nitrogen plant years behind schedule but once it was finished they weren’t even running it. Without cashflow from product sales, there’s no way this investment could ever pay back its cost.
Presumably the January 2017 announcement was designed more to address US Nitrogen’s local public relations disasters than to provide meaningful information. Its description of the plant delivering ANSOL “consistently” might reasonably have been interpreted as meaning the plant was operating, which it clearly wasn’t and isn’t:
US Nitrogen began operation of its nitric acid and liquid ammonium nitrate plants in April and May 2016, respectively … Ammonia plant operation began in late June 2016 and fully integrated operation of all operating units began in September 2016.
In late May 2016, the US Nitrogen facility began supplying batches of liquid ammonium nitrate solution, primarily made with purchased ammonia, to its parent company, Austin Powder …
With US Nitrogen now capable of full production, the facility is consistently delivering ANSOL to meet Austin Powders demand, and is also regularly supplying ammonia into the agricultural and industrial markets.
Greeneville Sun, US Nitrogen statement, 01/24/2017
In December 2015, news reports had described the plant as being “in the midst of a phased startup for months.” Despite notifying regulators that the ANSOL plant started up in May 2016 and the ammonia plant started up in June 2016, US Nitrogen still had so many operational problems that it didn’t describe the facility as being finished. The nitric acid plant appeared to be the biggest problem. In August 2016, the company had claimed that the facility would be operational by “the end of summer.” In January 2017, almost five years after the start of construction, the company finally announced that it had reached “full production capacity.”
Events at US Nitrogen suggest a culture that allows safety and maintenance standards to be compromised, or simply fails to understand or implement regulatory requirements.
The site failed numerous permit requirements during a June 2016 inspection; the company characterized these as “primarily paperwork issues,” although systematic problems were present, including leaking valves on ammonia holding tanks (steam condensate), indicating poor maintenance, and some ongoing design defects – later described as “equipment impracticability.”
In early August 2016, according to US Nitrogen’s “voluntary disclosure” filed with TDEC, “during certain periods of our repeated attempts to start up and continuously ‘operate’ our ammonia plant, the SCR was not ‘fully operational,'” in violation of the air quality permit (the SCR unit removes pollutants from the plant’s emissions).
Then, in late August 2016, the nitric acid plant was shut down, and operations were put on hold, with the site “under federal and state investigation.” Start-up attempts continued shortly afterwards, under observation by regulators; the state Director of Air Pollution Control ordered that “TDEC officials should be on site for any additional startup attempts of the nitric acid plant.”
As TDEC staff stated in September 2016, “it is typical for a plant to experience glitches during its initial startup that have to be identified and resolved before normal operation can be expected.” However, it is not typical for these glitches to continue for almost two years. These issues should have been fixed in a matter of months; the fact that they have not suggests long-term problems in the plant’s design.
This is still ongoing: in April 2017, another nitric acid release brought the regulators back to investigate the site, again. This time, caused by a broken gasket (“A ‘spot failure’ inside a heat exchanger ‘that sits inside the ammonium nitrate neutralizer system'”).
This has not been a smooth vertical integration for parent company, Austin Powder.
Many of the project’s issues were related to permit approvals and the local community’s persistent and ongoing resistance to the project. Most of the original permit challenges from 2012 to 2014 have been resolved, and the permit was renewed in October 2016, despite stiff opposition both from the community and also from the state. The full list of comments on the permit is available via TDEQ.
The project experienced serious issues with its engineering design and construction.
In February 2016, US Nitrogen filed a lawsuit against Weatherly, its engineering design and procurement contractor, in which it detailed some of the technical problems that plagued the project. US Nitrogen’s complaint, accessible via the US Court PACER system, alleged many things, practically all of which Weatherly denied. US Nitrogen’s allegations included:
• … Design failed to include adequate drainage plans for this type of greenfield project. This initial design failure has resulted in continued construction and design modifications to the project that continue to this day. Developing adequate drainage in the midst of principal construction has resulted in substantial costs and delays to the project.
• … it was critical that construction should begin on the foundations for the two Worthington BDC compressors prior to other construction activities. These compressors … required customized foundations that both ensured adequate support for their tremendous weight as well as the dynamic forces created by the reciprocating pistons in the compressors. These devices are arguably the most integral part of the process for making ammonium nitrate and represent the most complex pieces of machinery in the facility.
• In the fall of 2013, the compressor foundations were complete … Prior to January 4, 2014, the main bodies of the two compressors had been placed on the foundations. On January 4, 2014 there were identical failures to both concrete foundations. These failures rendered the foundations unsafe and unusable.
• … The design defects concerned the use of outdated methodology, a significant lack of rebar support in the base and the piers of the foundation, quality control issues that should have been identified through inspection … problems with spacing and edge distances in places where the design would have permitted placement in more secure locations, inadequate rebar around the anchor bolts, and a failure to use design practices that would ensure an anticipated service life commensurate with new construction.
• Design defects included but were not limited to: a. pipes which did not meet; b. pipe hangers attached incorrectly or designed without an anchor point; c. pipe fittings or pipes that terminated in concrete; d. steel beams that did not meet or provide proper support; e. missing or insufficient concrete joints; and f. improper soil testing and compaction.
• Suspending construction … was not a feasible option for US Nitrogen. At significant expense, and causing a significant delay of at least five months, US Nitrogen removed the defective work, re-designed the compressor foundations, and replaced the compressor foundations …
• US Nitrogen has incurred in excess of Thirty Million Dollars ($30,000,000.00) in additional expenses as a direct result of repairing problems and correcting unsuitable designs …
It is likely that nothing will come from this lawsuit in any hurry; the discovery deadline was set for October 2016.
The other issues surrounding US Nitrogen have been, frankly, too many to enumerate, but they include:
- Water supply plans:
could triggertriggered a lawsuit from the local water utility in August 2014, apparently settled in September 2015.
- Air permit: appealed (no link available), July 2014.
- Water permits: NPDES permit appealed and ARAP appealed twice, July 2014.
- Right of way permit for water pipeline: denied by TDOT, June 2014, before being approved, August 2014.
- TDEC’s Water Quality Criteria: challenged by environmental groups through the EPA, June 2014 (potentially rendering all US Nitrogen’s water permits void).
- Site zoning: challenged in a lawsuit heard in October 2014, and resolved in March 2015.
- Land purchase: potential for litigation amid various ongoing accusations of fraud, bribery, perjury, corruption, and general abuse of office in September 2013 (apparently arising when the chairman, now retired, of the local utility district was supposed to be negotiating a price for the sale of public water, but instead negotiated the sale of personal land on the banks of the Nolichucky River). This one is still live: there have been grand jury hearings, and a corporate denial in November 2015.
And finally:in July 2014, local officials of the Greene County Industrial Development Board sparked international outrage by arresting an individual at an open meeting who dared to ask them to speak up. The Tennessee Open Records Counsel was flooded with public complaints, which were passed on to the county attorney. This incident also sparked a lawsuit in July 2015. And finally:in September 2014, the Save the Nolichucky organization filed suit against US Nitrogen and the Industrial Development Board of Greeneville and Greene County (IDB), in an attempt to stop construction on the controversial water pipelines. And finally: in September 2014, another new lawsuit was filed, this time against TDOT, alleging that it was against state law to grant right of way for any entity other than a public utility. And finally: in October 2014, a number of residents secured a restraining order to stop US Nitrogen from trespassing – although US Nitrogen claims it hadn’t and didn’t need to enter their properties to build the pipeline.
- And finally: in October 2014, these claims of trespass were augmented after the death of a walking horse, which, naturally, led to another lawsuit, still pending as far as I’m aware.
A large number of the problems facing US Nitrogen involved its plans to build a 12-mile dual pipeline, at a cost of “approximately $130,000 per mile.” The pipeline would take water from and discharge effluent into the Nolichucky River, crossing 20 streams on its way. This replaced the original plan, which would have involved paying to upgrade the local utility’s infrastructure as well as paying for water supply. It seems that US Nitrogen solved this issue by developing a “split flow” plan for the plant’s water requirements, combining both the original plan to use the Town of Mosheim’s Lick Creek wastewater treatment plant as well as the double-pipeline, for which it received the final permits from the Tennessee Valley Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in September 2014.
US Nitrogen’s “state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly” plant sits on 50 acres, within a 450-acre tract, near Midway, in rural Greene County, Tennessee.
The greenfield project consists of two ammonia plants each with a capacity of 100 short tons per day (stpd), a Weatherly nitric acid (NA) plant with capacity 600 stpd, and an ammonium nitrate solution (ANSOL) plant with capacity 840 stpd. Actual production of ANSOL will, however, be constrained by the amount of ammonia the plant can produce (200 stpd of ammonia is not enough to make 840 stpd of ANSOL on a continuous basis; the company’s publicized ANSOL production rate of 420 stpd is more realistic).
The ammonia plants are not new builds, but old units that US Nitrogen has refurbished.
US Nitrogen altered and expanded its plans a number of times, adding to the complexity of the issues facing the project. The most significant additions to the site were a calcium nitrate (CN) plant, to be owned and operated by Yara, and a 90,000 stpy carbon dioxide (CO2) liquefaction plant, whose owner and operator had not been decided when the permits were issued.
In April 2016, Praxair announced “a long-term agreement to purchase by-product carbon dioxide from US Nitrogen,” and plans to “build, own and operate [the] carbon dioxide purification and liquefaction facility … [to] produce beverage-quality liquid carbon dioxide,” for start-up in late 2017. Soon thereafter, Praxair began collecting local tax incentives for the project. In September 2016, TDEC extended the deadline for construction of the CO2 plant to the end of 2017.
Yara’s 72,000 stpy CN plant will purchase its nitric acid feedstock from US Nitrogen and limestone “from nearby quarries,” the latter delivered by “a maximum of three trucks per day.” CN solution, the finished product, will be shipped out by a maximum of “10 tankers per day.” According to initial permits, the plant’s continuous process will consume up to 2.8 short tons (5,600 pounds) of milled limestone and 3.5 short tons (7,006 pounds) of nitric acid every hour – however, as of August 2016, construction has not begun and permit modifications may well follow. In September 2016, TDEC extended the deadline for construction of the CN plant to the end of 2018.
US Nitrogen’s air permits reflect the project’s torturous planning process: the initial air permit application was submitted in June 2011, revised in August 2011, approved in January 2012, extended in May 2013, extended again in December 2013, revised in June 2014, and revised again in July 2015. The air permit caps emissions at 215,044 stpy of greenhouse gases (CO2e) and 95.26 stpy of nitrogen oxides (NOx).
US Nitrogen’s permits incorporate the Yara and CO2 plants because “from a regulatory standpoint, they are likely considered a single ‘stationary source.'” The addition of the Yara plant increased site-wide emissions somewhat but the CO2 plant causes “a reduction of approximately 80%” of the (previously approved) CO2 emissions from the ammonia plant. Ammonia and VOC emission increased, compared to the previous permit, “due to increased use of natural gas plus … new information from the catalyst manufacturer and the design engineer.” US Nitrogen gave no reason why these fundamental design details were changed so far into the construction phase, nor any indication that they won’t request still more changes in due course.
Regarding possible future modifications of the permits, the shortfall between permitted ammonia capacity and permitted ANSOL capacity is noteworthy. The site can not produce enough ammonia to run both the CN plant and the ANSOL plant at full, permitted capacity, so it would not surprise me if another air permit modification was coming around the corner: a ~75% expansion of the ammonia lines, to roughly 127,000 stpy, would do the trick (see the math below).
US Nitrogen’s end product, ANSOL, a concentrated solution of ammonium nitrate in water, will be shipped to Austin Powder’s “manufacturing sites in Ohio and elsewhere,” where it will be used to manufacture blasting agents for the industrial explosives market. ANSOL is stored and shipped in “specially designed trucks” as a hot liquid. Depending on the strength of the solution, “hot” means a temperature of (for example) more than 225°F or 135 to 140°C. The company estimates that “30-40 truckloads per day will leave the plant.”
MATH: US Nitrogen’s ammonia (NH3) feedstock consumption
One ton ANSOL requires 0.80 tons NA and 0.22 tons NH3.
One ton NA requires 0.29 tons NH3.
ANSOL production: 260,000 stpy
NA required for ANSOL (x0.80) = 208,000 stpy
… and NH3 required for NA (x0.29) = 60,320 stpy
NH3 required for ANSOL (x0.22 ) = 57,200 stpy
… so total NH3 required for ANSOL = 117,520 stpy (60,320 + 57,200)
CN production: 72,000 stpy
NA input rate given as 7,006 pounds per hour = 30,686 stpy
… and NH3 required for NA (x0.29) = 8,899 stpy
Total site NH3 requirement (US Nitrogen + Yara) = 126,419 stpy (117,520 + 8,899)
Permitted site NH3 capacity = 73,000 stpy
A ~75% expansion of the ammonia lines would therefore be required for all on-site plants to operate at permitted capacity. However, even this might underestimate the installed ANSOL capacity, as the 840 short tons per day capacity plant is permitted for 260,000 short tons per year. Operating for 365 days per year, an 840 stpd plant would produce 306,600 stpy, a ~20% expansion above the currently permitted ANSOL capacity and a ~100% expansion above the currently permitted ammonia capacity.
View larger map with all ammonia plants.
ADDRESS: 471 Pottertown Road, Midway, TN 37809, United States
- USGS: Minerals Yearbook, Nitrogen [RECENT / ARCHIVE]
- Air Permitting: TDEC, Division of Air Pollution Control: US Nitrogen, LLC permit documents [LINK]
- Water Permitting: TDEC, Department of Water Resources: US Nitrogen, LLC permit documents [LINK]
- Legal Proceedings: Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) [LINK, registration required]
- 05/03/2017: Greeneville Sun: State Denies US Nitrogen Request For Testing Extension [LINK]
- 04/26/2017: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen: Faulty Gasket Caused Vapor Release [LINK]
- 04/20/2017: Greeneville Sun: Nitric Acid Release At US Nitrogen Under Investigation [LINK]
- 04/19/2017: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Plant Released Nitric Acid Vapors; Emergency Officials Respond [LINK]
- 04/15/2017: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Seeking Emissions Monitoring Deadline Extensions [LINK]
- 03/04/2017: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Says It’s At ‘Full Production Capability,’ Despite Startup Problems [LINK]
- 01/26/2017: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Reaches ‘Full Production Capacity’ [LINK]
- 09/10/2016: Greeneville Sun: TDEC Investigating As US Nitrogen Continues Startup [LINK]
- 08/30/2016: 22 News WWLP: U.S. Nitrogen plant in Tennessee under investigation, operations on hold [LINK]
- 08/27/2016: Greeneville Sun: TDEC Is Reviewing Emissions Incidents At US Nitrogen Plant [LINK]
- 08/06/2016: Greeneville Sun: Regulators: US Nitrogen Correcting ‘Minor’ Deficiencies [LINK]
- 06/16/2016: WJHL: State seeks input on US Nitrogen permit renewal [LINK]
- 06/10/2016: Greeneville Sun: Speakers Oppose Permit Renewal [LINK]
- 06/09/2016: Greeneville Sun: IDB Offers Tax Abatement For US Nitrogen Partner Company [LINK]
- 04/30/2016: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Sues Engineering Firm [LINK]
- 04/19/2016: Praxiar press release: Praxair Signs Long-Term Agreement to Source Carbon Dioxide in the U.S. [LINK]
- 12/24/2015: Greeneville Sun: New Plant Manager In For US Nitrogen [LINK]
- 11/20/2015: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen ‘Vehemently’ Denies Improper Actions About Property [LINK]
- 09/09/2015: Greeneville Sun: IDB Approves US Nitrogen Settlement Agreement [LINK]
- 07/24/2015: Greeneville Sun: Overholt Files $10.8M Lawsuit Against Officials [LINK]
- 07/22/2015: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen, Old Knox Discussing Settlement [LINK]
- 06/01/2015: Nolichucky Guardian: $2.5M Lawsuit Filed Against US Nitrogen & IDB [LINK]
- 05/23/2015: Greeneville Sun: Chancellor Dismisses Suit Against County Government [LINK]
- 03/25/2015: Greeneville Sun: Court Upholds US Nitrogen Zoning [LINK]
- 10/21/2014: Greeneville Sun: Lawsuit Blames US Nitrogen Pipeline Work For Horse’s Death [LINK]
- 10/18/2014: Greeneville Sun: Attorneys In New Lawsuit Reach Agreement About Avoiding ‘Trespassing’ In Work On USN/IDB Pipeline [LINK]
- 10/09/2014: Greeneville Sun: Controversial Pipeline Is In [LINK]
- 09/30/2014: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Granted Last Permit [LINK]
- 09/27/2014: Greeneville Sun: New Legal Thrust In US Nitrogen Battle [LINK]
- 09/16/2014: Greeneville Sun: Another Lawsuit Filed Against US Nitrogen And IDB [LINK]
- 08/29/2014: Greeneville Sun: Lawsuit Filed Against IDB, US Nitrogen [LINK]
- 08/02/2014: Greeneville Sun: TDOT Issues Pipeline Permit [LINK]
- 07/23/2014: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen, Old Knox Make Progress In Water Talks [LINK]
- 07/23/2014: Knoxville News Sentinel: Negotiations: Controversial pipeline would be owned, monitored by utility [LINK]
- 07/23/2014: Greeneville Sun: Old Knox, US Nitrogen Now Negotiating On A Water Deal [LINK]
- 07/21/2014: Daily Mail: Outrage as 76-year-old man is ARRESTED at town hall meeting for asking board members to speak louder [LINK]
- 06/27/2014: Tennessee Clean Water Network press release: Tennessee Citizens Groups Fight TDEC’s Proposed Rules on Water Quality Criteria [LINK]
- 06/13/2014: WATE.com: TDOT denies right-of-way to Greene County U.S. Nitrogen plant [LINK]
- 05/02/2014: Greeneville Sun: Comment Period For US Nitrogen Permits Extended [LINK]
- 02/04/2014: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Asks To Get Water Out Of The Nolichucky River [LINK]
- 03/01/2012: Chematur Technologies press release: New contract for Weatherly inc [LINK]
- 02/18/2012: Greeneville Sun: US Nitrogen Breaks Ground For $220-Million Plant [LINK]
- 02/21/2011: Greeneville Sun: Commission To Consider US Nitrogen, LLC Plant [LINK]