MERCER COUNTY — One of North Dakota’s largest ongoing construction projects is making its host county a harbor of economic stability in the rough economic waters rocking much of the state.
A $500 million urea fertilizer plant started in 2014 is past the half-way construction mark within the sprawling industrial complex of Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Dakota Gasification Co. plant northwest of Beulah.
Already home of four power plants, two lignite coal mines and the synfuels plant, Mercer County saw a substantial rise in taxable sales at a time when that metric nosedived across the state. Sales were up 17 percent in the most recent reporting quarter compared to last year, as that same number declined 26 percent statewide with the oil patch economy dragging along the bottom.
That’s no surprise to Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, who says King Coal counties are traditionally a beacon of stability year over year, when other counties, dependent on agriculture and oil, stumble as commodity prices decline.
“It’s clear that the urea plant, along with the development of the new Coyote Creek Mine, is contributing a lot to the Mercer County economy, as well as other counties,” Rauschenberger said.
Construction has inched past the halfway mark and the second half will run downhill much faster with completion anticipated by the end of June, says project manager Jim Greer.
However, actual production of urea may be set back by the fierce summer storm that roared through July 3.
The storm’s 76 mph winds so severely damaged a 53,000-ton storage building that it had to be completely demolished from the crumpled steel right down to the deep underground foundation piers.
“We did an assessment, and it was decided that was what we had to do to make the site safe. Three months’ worth of work was torn down in three weeks,” said Greer, who couldn’t comment on the value of that building because it’s under an insurance settlement.
The storage building won’t be done until early 2018, a full half year later than the urea process plant.
“Now we’re evaluating what we can do with production next year because storage is part of the production flow. There’s been no decision yet,” Greer said.
While described as a “plant” in the singular tense, the urea plant is centered around two primary process facilities. One “melts” the C02 and ammonia supplied from the gasification plant at high pressure and temperature and a second granulates the chemicals into high-nitrogen fertilizer pellets that will be broadcast on crop soil. Both structures are being wrapped in four acres of metal cladding now that steel framing and interior equipment is complete.
“Now we have the momentum to carry us into the winter months,” Greer said.
The workforce made up of engineers, welders, iron workers, electricians and masons is nearly at its peak of 1,000, a couple hundred more workers than the 750 originally planned.
“We went above that to address the construction schedule,” Greer said.
About 50 people will be needed to operate the plant.
While many commute to their jobs, the labor force workers are all over Mercer County, filling hotels, restaurants, retail stores and RV parks, adding to the economic activity, though Rauschenberger says some of the taxable sales increase comes from the tax levied on materials, such as steel and equipment, at the point of sale.
D Krause, co-owner of Krause’s Market, said the grocery and deli store in Hazen is definitely impacted by the workers in a good way.
“We all enjoy seeing the unfamiliar faces that have become familiar. The number of workers coming in has been a comfortable amount since the get-go,” he said.