Commission approves permit change for chemical storage

City Commissioners voted unanimously to amend a conditional use permit for Helena Agri-Enterprises, formally Helena Chemical, to allow the use of anhydrous ammonia at their facility in Agri-Tech Park, an industrial park near Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Commissioners had approved the initial CUP in 2015 and specifically prohibited anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate from being brought into the facility.

At the time, the concern was the flammable nature of those chemicals, but Helena Agri-Enterprises staff recently contacted staff requesting the modification to the permit to allow anhydrous ammonia to be stored on site so the company is able to manufacture ammonium polyphosphate to local farmers.

The storage will require rail cars or trucks to be staged on the existing rail line or facility for about two weeks, according to the staff report. A truck mounted blending unit will be utilized to process the estimated 180,000 gallons of finished APP and will use all the anhydrous ammonia stored in the rail cars or trucks in about 24 hours. The rail cars or trucks will be connected to the vessels and attached to the blending unit by hose. The ammonia will be discharged from the unit by hose to existing plumbing and tanks.

The company estimates the belding operation would be needed twice annually and the anhydrous ammonia will be transported by truck and use about 60,000 gallons of water, according to the staff report.

Staff recommended the approval and said the specific process minimized risks.

During a July 6 commission meeting, they set the public hearing for the Aug. 3 meeting and said they had concerns and questions about the permit amendment.

They asked about Helena Agri-Enterprises’ safety record; whether Great Falls Fire Rescue, Great Falls Police Department or Malmstrom Air Force Base had concerns; and if the process was performed in other locations.

The company has no incidents or safety issues on file related to the process for blending operations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has two violations on file throughout the county over the last five years, both of which were due to non-compliance in submitting discharge monitoring reports, one in Washington in 2016 and the other in Louisiana in 2016, both of which were resolved administratively, according to staff.

According to the company, the portable blending process is done at Helena Agri-Enterprises locations nationwide about 30 times annually.

Great Falls Fire Rescue did not have concerns with the permit amendment and during the meeting Chief Jeremy Jones said he wasn’t concerned about a release and that GFFR has a hazmat team available and that the company has safety protocols in place.

“These products are coming through our town everyday,” Jones said. “Have it come twice a year to this facility isn’t going to be any more dangerous than any other given day in our community.”

John Hubbard, a regular at commission meetings who goes by ‘Johnny Angry,’ asked about security at the site and said “this is a meth heads dream.”

GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said he and another detective spoke with company officials about security and that having worked in narcotics, was aware of the horror stories in the past, but there have been changes in security, laws, technology and the cheap supply of methamphetamines from elsewhere.

“I can’t remember the last time we had a working lab in Great Falls,” Newton said. “We just aren’t seeing people syphoning off anhydrous ammonia to manufacture meth, we just don’t see it anymore.”

There hasn’t been an issue with theft of anhydrous ammonia in more than 15 years in the city, according to Newton.

Staff provided information and contact information to Malmstrom officials as well as multiple requests for any concerns or questions, but did not receive any by the Aug. 3 meeting.

The commission annexed and assigned a planned unit development zoning classification for the 196 acre Agri-Tech Park, which was planned for industrial lots, according to city staff.

Helena Agri-Enterprises is a national fertilizer company and has been in operation since 1957 and has been established in Great Falls’ AgriTech Park since 2016. The site receives large quantities of dry and liquid fertilizer from rail and truck, then will mix, blend, repackage, store, and redistribute large quantities of fertilizer to farmers across Montana. The type of product redistributed depends on the specific need from each individual farmer, according to the staff report.

Neighborhood Council 4 was presented with the permit amendment proposal during their June 24 meeting and voted in favor of the project.