In an unconventional move, Anaconda’s county commission approved a major development permit for Premier Industries’ processing facility last week, after an initial motion to approve the measure died for lack of a second.
Since late June Premier, through its contractor FX Solutions, Inc. has been performing earthwork on a 93-acre parcel southwest of Montana Highway One on Mill Creek Highway, where its backers say they want to build a facility that will turn Anaconda slag into proppant – a material used to frack oil and natural gas. Proponents of the facility say the $50-million facility will bring 700 jobs to Anaconda when functioning at maximum capacity, though that’s not expected to happen right away.
At issue at the commission's meeting Tuesday night was whether the commission should follow the recommendation of the county’s planning board, who in earlier in November recommended approval of the permit contingent on several conditions, including that the company submit final plans and specifications for its facility to the county, get approval to use potable water and municipal sewer extensions and submit copies of necessary permits from environmental agencies.
Chas Ariss, planning director, said Wednesday the permit is required because of the size of the facility, which will reside in an industrial zone where large facilities are required to get major development permits.
When the major development permit came up for discussion Tuesday, no one spoke in favor of the project. Representatives for Premier were not present, and neither County Attorney Ben Krakowka or Anaconda Chief Executive Bill Everett were in attendance.
But there was an opponent in the room - John Fitzpatrick, a former Anaconda resident who has written op-eds in both The Montana Standard and Anaconda’s local newspaper, the Anaconda Leader, criticizing the viability of the project.
In his op-ed to The Standard, Fitzpatrick questioned a figure that Rick Tabish of FX Solutions gave during a public information session earlier this month, during which Tabish said the facility would yield between $200 and $225 million in tax revenue for Anaconda-Deer Lodge County. The figure was quoted both in The Standard and in The Leader, but Tabish told The Standard Wednesday that the figure he gave was the facility’s taxable income, and not the amount of property taxes the facility would generate. He said he thought this was understood by the “consortium” who attended the meeting.
On Tuesday, Fitzpatrick urged commissioners to hold off on approving Premier’s major development permit.
Among other criticisms, Fitzpatrick said that if the company begins construction on its buildings in November in order to meet its goal of opening by the end of the first quarter in 2018, it would likely be in violation of the Montana Air Quality Act because the company would not have enough time to apply for an air-quality permit, which must be applied for 180 days before construction begins on a facility that produces emissions, Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick cited a Nov. 15 Leader article that discussed the planning board’s recommendations, including the condition that the company provide a timeline for applying for an air-quality permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
He quoted Tabish, who told the Leader that if the facility’s footings and foundations aren’t installed soon, it would be difficult for the company to reach its goal of opening in the first quarter 2018 (around April or March that year.)
“This suggests to me the Premier plans to obtain its major development permit and then hurry out to the project site and start pouring concrete, perhaps as early as next week," Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. “If Premier wanted to be pouring concrete in November, they should have applied for the Air Quality Permit last May. A prudent man would have done so. Mr. Tabish did not.”
But Ariss said Wednesday that Premier needs an air-quality permit only for the facility’s “emission source,” a point he brought up with commissioners Tuesday.
Early plans for Premier’s facility call for four buildings: a main plant of 60,100 square feet, a warehouse, an office and maintenance shop. The company needs an air-quality permit to build the main plant, he said, but the 180-day requirement does not impact the other buildings.
“Premier wants to move forward as much as they can,” said Ariss, noting that the air-quality permit is important, but that it doesn’t preclude moving forward with parts of the project that don’t involve the main plant – the aforementioned “emissions source.”
Jeni Garcin, public information officer for DEQ, told The Montana Standard Friday that an air-quality permit for buildings that could potentially come later during a project aren’t necessary for construction, adding that she couldn’t give any more detail than that without seeing the finer details of the project.
Nonetheless Fitzpatrick’s testimony seemed to have some impact on commissioners.
“We’re in the process of cleaning up stuff that we may be putting back in the air,” said Commissioner Kevin Hart in reference to questions Fitzpatrick raised about how arsenic and lead—both of which the slag contains in small amounts—will be captured and contained.
Afterward, Commissioner Paul Smith put forward the motion to approve the major development permit, but none of the other commissioners seconded the motion.
“This is uncharted territory,” said county commission chair Terry Vermeire, who moments later said the motion was dead for lack of a second.
Commissioners then began discussing the next agenda item, a resolution that would have set procedural guidelines in place for public hearings across county boards.The resolution was ultimately tabled.
Some time later, a recess was held, Commissioner Steve Gates told The Montana Standard. When commissioners came back, he said, they took up the major development permit issue again. A motion was again made to approve the major development permit, which Gates said he seconded. The major development permit ultimately passed 5-0, he said.
Tabish, meanwhile, say he plans to attend public meetings regarding Premier Industries from here on out.
He added that he is impressed with Fitzpatrick’s knowledge base but respectfully disagrees with his opinion.