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Rick Tabish to Anaconda: Slag plant still on, maybe

Slag processing plant

Rick Tabish's proposed slag processing plant is slated to be built on this site east of Anaconda, along Mill Creek Road.

A much-ballyhooed slag processing plant planned for Anaconda is still in the works, despite a lack of activity so far at the site, says Rick Tabish, the project's main backer and promoter.

Missoula-based Tabish came to Anaconda in 2015 saying he had found a purpose for the black mountain of smelter waste that looms along a portion of Montana Highway 1. Since then, he has continually said the project was moving forward and that he would build the plant this year. But the site has been largely silent.

Tabish says that silence could end soon. And he still anticipates the 700 jobs he previously promised Anaconda residents will eventually come.

The main holdup, according to Tabish, is difficulty meeting the project's power needs.

To meet them, he may have to build a substation to provide enough juice to the Mill Creek site, just south of the slag mountain. He has asked NorthWestern Energy to investigate how much power he needs.

Butch Larcombe, NWE spokesperson, said that NWE will provide those details to Tabish at the end of January.

Tabish says if he can get the power necessary to the site, he could have a plant ready to begin manufacturing various smelter waste byproducts within about a year. If so, Tabish said the plant would start small but ramp up production over time.

The 56 million tons of slag is currently inert. It was created by about 60 years of smelting on "the hill" overlooking Anaconda at the now long-shuttered Washoe Smelter.

Tabish says he can use slag to make proppant, a product used in the fracking industry, where Tabish has ties. He and his cousin Dan Tabish, a metallurgist, also say they can make pig iron for the steel industry. And the Tabish cousins say there is now outside interest in zinc oxide, which would be yet another byproduct of their processing if they get off the ground.

And it's not only the Tabishes who say the slag processing plant is progressing. Terry Vermeire, chair of the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Commission, recently said the project is still moving forward and that there is a proposal for a fuel plan at Bowman Field, Anaconda’s airport. Carl Nyman, county Superfund coordinator, said there has been recent talk of a haul road going in from the slag pile to the Mill Creek site. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality said FX Solutions, Tabish's general contracting company, submitted new information for its air quality permit late last month.

Despite such signs of progress, the path toward completion isn't entirely clear — and some observers doubt whether it will ever get there.

A fast-approaching deadline

The county and Tabish's Premier Industries signed a lease agreement for 93 acres of land two years ago in the Mill Creek Tax Increment Financing Industrial District, which has special tax status to incentivize economic growth. The Mill Creek TIFID is also part of Anaconda's Superfund site.

Premier Industries' lease agreement contains a clause that states if building doesn’t begin by Dec. 31, 2018, the lease will be terminated.

Tabish didn’t appear to be aware of that clause Friday. He said he’s still leasing land from the county for $100 a year and indicated he’s open to fixing the problem.

Vermeire said the lease expiration hasn’t come up and that it was likely an “oversight.” Noting that the county is “in no position to want to grab that land back,” Vermeire said he will vote in favor of extending the lease. But he said a vote would be unlikely to happen before the deadline.

Calls to Ben Krakowka, county attorney, and Bill Everett, county chief executive, seeking their thoughts on the impending deadline were not returned.

Unclear ownership

If the deadline is extended and the project is able to move forward after the New Year, it’s unclear whether the company behind the project will continue to be known as Premier Industries.

According to Tabish, the name may have to change because Lane McNamara, a silent investor from Texas, is no longer involved. Instead, the project is now being fully funded by FX Solutions.

Despite this apparent change, McNamara is still listed on the company’s 2018 business filing with the Montana Secretary of State. (Attempts to reach him by phone and email were unsuccessful.)

Tabish has said he founded Premier, but he has not been listed on the company’s annual business statement to the state since 2016, when the company filed an amendment and removed Tabish from the legal record.

Since 2016, though, Tabish continued to speak on behalf of the project but said he was no longer the head of Premier. Rather, he claimed his role was solely as a general contractor to Premier under his Missoula-based company FX Solutions.

Air quality

A consulting firm working for Tabish has been going back and forth with DEQ for part of this year as it works to supply the information required to obtain an air quality permit.

Dan Tabish said by phone Friday that DEQ’s main questions about the project have concerned “accounting for every speck of material." He says “none of it is going up into the air.”

Dan Tabish is still spearheading a pilot project 

for converting slag into proppant and other products. Housed at J.K. Fabricators south of Butte, that pilot project officially kicked off about a year ago with four employees, including Dan.

As that work continues, DEQ said via email last week that the agency is still reviewing the latest information provided to the agency about the project but that no decision has been made about whether to grant a permit.

The agency did say that “some metals emissions may be present in the particulate matter that is emitted” and called the projected slag plant “a minor source” of emissions because it will generate more than 25 tons but less than 100 tons a year. But DEQ also said FX Solutions has proposed installing a filtering system called a “baghouse” that would control particulate matter by 99 percent or better.

Oil and tariffs

Other factors that are out of Tabish's control and could stall progress include oil prices and tariffs.

At about $50 a barrel, oil prices are currently low, making fracking less profitable and decreasing demand for the proppant Tabish plans to produce from Anaconda's slag.

But Tabish argues that because the slag can also be turned into pig iron and because there are no other U.S. sources for pig iron, he will be able generate enough revenue from pig iron to offset a potential dip in demand for proppant.

As for tariffs, an ongoing trade war between the United States and China has led to increased building costs and slowed down some construction projects around the nation. But Tabish said that won’t stop him either. He said the higher construction costs are within his budget. And if he needs to erect a substation, he said he can do so within a few months.

“I build quickly and very efficiently,” Tabish said.

Criticism

John Fitzpatrick, who has followed Tabish’s plans from the beginning, has repeatedly called foul ball 

on Tabish’s claim of 700 employees. Fitzpatrick, who notes he is “no environmentalist,” had a long career in industry and says he’s knowledgeable about permits and startups.

Now retired, Fitzpatrick says his primary concern is the credibility of Tabish’s project. Tabish has made a number of claims — including about his profit levels, tax revenue, and number of employees — that Fitzpatrick says don’t add up.

In the case of employees, Tabish has countered Fitzpatrick's doubts by noting that Fitzpatrick is basing his math on what Tabish's first year of revenue will be. But according to Tabish, he won’t have 700 employees right off the bat. Instead, the workforce will grow to that number over time. And as it does, there will be a support team in North Dakota to sell and handle the proppant, so not all workers will be in Anaconda. Tablish also says that with double shifts and support staff, the numbers make sense.

But Tabish’s track record, including various brushes with law, has caused concern for some.

Among Tabish’s past troubles are a 2000 conviction for killing Las Vegas casino owner Ted Binion. Though that conviction was later overturned, Tabish spent 10 years in prison for burglary and grand larceny. He also gained a long rap sheet with Missoula police before he headed to Las Vegas in the 1990s.

During Tabish's trial for murder, The Missoulian reported that more than one of his business dealings had gone south. And The Montana Standard recounted some of his legal issues in 2016, in the paper's first story about his interest in Anaconda’s slag heap.

But Tabish has criticized reporting about his past legal issues as “a slap in the face" considering the good things, including jobs and revenue, he hopes to bring to the Smelter City.

Tabish said he doesn’t have “one blemish” with any of his current business partners and said he has never filed for bankruptcy. He also noted that he started Wash Works, the first company where problems emerged, when he was 21 years old. Tabish is now in his early 50s.

“We create jobs. We do good things,” Tabish said of his current work in business.

He also claimed that his plans in Anaconda have drawn interest from a foreign company that hopes Tabish can help process a different slag mountain into profitable products. He says he could build a second processing plant in Texas to handle all the demand.

However, Tabish emphasized that Anaconda will come first. And if he can’t get enough power to the Mill Creek site to see his dream of a whole pile of smelter waste turn into a silver lining for both him and economically depressed Anaconda, he’ll turn the Mill Creek site into a place for children.

“We’ll make a park or playground or something,” Tabish said. “We’re not going to leave Anaconda with it. It’ll produce something. I feel confident we are going to do something and make something out of it.”

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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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