“Is this still something I should be working toward? Are we still interested?”
These were questions posed by City Manager Joe Bippus in the course of an informational session during the Three Rivers City Commission meeting Monday evening (May 6) – activity focused on a proposal from DOVE Ag Services, Inc. to construct a large agriculture fertilizer storage facility on the former Essex Wire Company property on Fourth Street. The operation would include a 2-million gallon tank to store UAN, a liquid fertilizer solution that has a nitrogen content that ranges from 28 percent to 32 percent.
At the outset of the session, Bippus said, “I wanted this meeting to just be informal, informational. I didn’t want the pressure of making a decision tonight. Sit back and take in information.”
In a memo pertaining to the activity, Bippus said, “The City has been considering the idea of selling property to DOVE Ag Services so they can build a farm fertilizer distribution center. City staff has had time to discuss the issue at length and get questions answered. It is important to allow the citizens an opportunity to discuss the project and get their questions answered. DOVE Ag officials, county EDC officials and the City environmental consultant will be at this meeting to discuss the specifics of the project and answer questions.”
Jon Silsby, president of DOVE Ag Services, kicked off the activity by presenting information about the proposed operation and providing folders to the commission containing photos of products being applied to farm fields as well as Material Safety Data Sheets for the various products handled by the company. He also gave commissioners an opportunity to sniff samples of the products in plastic bottles to check for odors.
With the recent fertilizer plant fire and explosion in West, Texas in mind, Silsby said, “The products that we plan on handling are not flammable. They do not explode. The West, Texas issue centered around two products – anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. Both of those products are not part of this facility. The products that we want to handle replace those products.” (Jon Silsby audio clip – :24)
In the course of the meeting, Silsby also said the products cannot be used to make methamphetamine.
Others also participated in the informational session:
- Jack Knorek of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) said, “The department’s interest in this project is to make sure that there’s enough secondary containment to hold any liquid materials in the event of a catastrophic failure. We’re right next to the St. Joe River. We’re in an area where if we lost too many gallons of a liquid product, it would flood basements and such. The department wants to prevent that and so our role in this is to make sure that facility has enough secondary containment to hold back any liquids that might come out.”
- Dan Arney, a retired farmer from the Sturgis area who represents agriculture on the St. Joseph County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Board, spoke highly of Jon and Sandy Silsby, owners of the company. He said, “I’ve known them for a long time. They’re very responsible people. They will abide by all the rules that the environmental people have mentioned to them and I think they do a very good job.”
- Larry Walton, a farmer from Nottawa who also serves on the EDC Board and uses products sold by DOVE Ag Services, said, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, if they tell you they’re going to do something, they will follow through and do it.”
- Dave Stegink of Envirologic Technologies, the city’s environmental consultant for work to clean up the Essex property, said there’s a “lot of environmental work to do out there.” He said, “We’re working on knowing where all the catch basins and old storm sewers and things are that were part of the old infrastructure that was there and cleaning them out, blocking them off, and making sure that we have no further direct discharges to the river. That is one task that we are undertaking to make sure that this kind of operation doesn’t cause us problems.” And, regarding the products to be sold by DOVE Ag Services, Stegink said, “We’ve looked at them, too from the perspective of wanting to make sure that this operation doesn’t pose an environmental risk to create contamination or a situation where we can’t distinguish this problem from what’s there.” He noted that he has a chemistry degree and said, “I can look at those Material Safety Data Sheets. This is not a flammable product. It’s not explosive. It’s not something that is really going to be a danger and I think, with a containment system that Jon has described to you, that’s well-built, functioning and maintained, I think we have a very nice operation that could go in here.”
A representative of the tank manufacturer was also on hand and indicated the tanks are made in DeKalb, Illinois.
Several citizens joined the commission in posing questions during the session.
In talking about the products, Silsby said, ““All of these are salts so, if you can liken it to chloriding a dirt road, it’s going to corrode equipment similar to that. A salt is a salt. Like road salt, how it corrodes county equipment. We run into those same issues with our equipment.” After the salts reference, Fourth District Commissioner Carolyn McNary noted the proximity of the St. Joseph River and wondered if there was potential for a problem. Silsby responded by noting diking requirements to contain all the liquid stored in the tanks.
At one point, for the sake of clarity, Mayor Tom Lowry asked about any plans for anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate in the facility to which Silsby replied: “We are not licensed to handle either one of those products and we don’t want to because this product is actually a competitor of theirs.” And Bippus added that those products “would not be allowed in our development agreement.”
City Attorney Pat O’Malley asked if odors would ever be a problem for people living in the area. Silsby said, “Never say never, but it would be very rare.”
Although no formal action was taken, commissioners indicated their desire to move forward with preparation of a ‘development agreement’ for the proposed facility and a sales agreement through which the company would acquire an 8-acre parcel of the city-owned property at the west end of the Essex site:
- Mayor Tom Lowry said, “Based on what we’ve heard this evening, I have no problem asking you to proceed with drafting up a sales agreement because you’ve not done that yet.” (Tom Lowry audio clip – :11)
- At-Large Commissioner Daryl Griffith, referring to the company’s products, said, “These are about as benign as you get. These have absolutely no concern whatsoever versus the concern of what happened in West, Texas or, I think, even some of the concerns about odors that we did have. We’ve had years of odor problems that we finally dealt with at our wastewater treatment plant so we don’t want to introduce something new to that neighborhood and I’m confident we’re not going to do that. Most of those have very little, if any, odor and hardly unpleasant. Certainly not at a strength that that I think is a problem. I think this is a great use for a brownfield that’s difficult to market anyway, but it has what you need – it has the rail. I think it’s going to be a clean and quiet operation there compared to some of the things that could go in there. . . . I think this would be a great thing to put in there.”
- Second District Commissioner Alison Haigh said, “I think we need to move forward. It’s a perfect opportunity to bring business and clean that area up which needs it badly.”
- And At-Large Commissioner David York said, “I’m satisfied the way it was explained.” Regarding the products, he said, “I feel that they’re safe and I’m rather glad that you’re coming to Three Rivers so I’m all for it.”
First District Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Regarding the cost involved in the project, Silsby said, “My rough estimate is that we’re going to be well north of a million dollars in my own investment.”
In response to a longevity question posed by Third District Commissioner Diane Clay, Silsby said, “Our long term goal is a minimum of 15 to 20 years. The railroad has agreed to a 16-year lease because that is the length of time that they have the railroad and so that’s as long as they’re willing to lease it to me, so right now all our plans are written around that 16-year term. The tank has a 20-year warranty and I would anticipate using that full warranty.” Earlier in the meeting, Silsby indicated that the availability of rail service at the site was an important factor in choosing to come to Three Rivers.
The matter may appear on the agenda for the next regular commission meeting on Tuesday, May 21st.
Additional information about DOVE Ag Services, Inc. may be found on the company’s website at www.doveagservices.com. You can also learn more by going to an earlier story in the River Country Journal: DOVE Ag Services, Inc. announces plans for a new large agriculture fertilizer storage facility.
To hear a recording of the informational session regarding the DOVE Ag Services proposal – presentation and dialogue – click on the following link: DOVE Ag Services informational session during Three Rivers City Commission meeting on May 6, 2013 (47:07 – 43.1 MB).