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Court remands permit for three anhydrous ammonia storage tanks in Montevideo

The Farmers Union Co-operative or Cenex of Montevideo wants to expand its anhydrous ammonia storage by erecting three tanks to hold a total of 78,000 gallons at its propane and ag-chemical operations site in the Smith Addition of Montevideo. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MONTEVIDEO -- Kim Johnson's concerns over plans by the Farmers Union Co-op Oil Company or Cenex to build an expanded, anhydrous ammonia storage facility near his home only grew as he gathered information about the dangers of the farm fertilizer.

Those concerns became a lawsuit when the city of Montevideo approved a conditional use permit on Aug. 3, 2009.

It would have allowed Cenex to erect three storage tanks holding a total of 78,000 gallons of the hazardous mixture on its existing, propane storage site in an area zoned for industrial use in the Smith Addition.

The issue is back before the city of Montevideo: A District Court ruling on April 28 remanded the matter to the city.

District Judge Paul Nelson ruled that the city had not adequately addressed Johnson's concerns about setback distances, health, safety and traffic, and the potential harm to the value of his property.

Fighting the permit in court has cost him thousands of dollars, Johnson said, but he's willing to continue it. "As long as I can suck air, I'm going to be fighting those dudes,'' he said.

The city has not taken up the issue since the court ruling, according to Montevideo City Manager Steve Jones.

He said the city will need to review the matter and decide whether or not it believes the concerns can be addressed by placing new requirements on the permit.

Glen Moe, general manager of the Cenex operations in Montevideo, said the matter is "on hold.'' The company remains interested in developing the storage site, he said.

Kim and Cynthia Johnson live just outside of the city limits of Montevideo. Their home and those of neighboring residences are within several hundred feet of the proposed location for the tanks. One storage building is within 400 feet.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture oversees anhydrous ammonia storage. It prohibits anhydrous ammonia storage facilities of under 100,000 gallons from being located within "400 feet from any residence, school, hospital, or other place of public assembly.''

Johnson said setback requirements are greater in other states. He contends that the Minnesota rules put much of Montevideo at serious risk should an accident occur.

A number of homes and businesses in the Smith Addition are roughly one-fourth of a mile from the proposed site.

There are numerous homes within a roughly one-third radius of the site. Extend the radius to one-half mile, and a park for children, campground, City Hall, fire and police stations and downtown areas are all at risk too, according to Johnson.

He said he brought all of this information and more to a city planning and zoning commission hearing on the permit request.

He said he was especially concerned that Cenex had no plans to erect security fencing, or place sensors and alarms or locks on its tanks.

It also alarmed him that the storage tanks would be near large propane tanks. An accidental propane explosion could damage the anhydrous ammonia tanks, he said.

Cenex told the city that the storage facility would have minimal impact on traffic. Johnson said that its location along County Road 15 puts it on an already busy roadway. The proposed location would require nurse tanks to be transported across the road twice: once to be weighed empty, and the second time after being filled.

Johnson said he also presented information about a June 6, 2005, incident in Morris in which an ammonia tank ripped open. He spoke to a neighboring farmer who told him that he escaped serious injury or death only because he found a vehicle with keys in it and was able to drive away from the cloud of gas.

Johnson said he also contacted Wes-Con and learned that the large, regional supplier of farm chemicals is ending its anhydrous ammonia business. The company's newsletter stated that concern for the safety of its employees was largely responsible for the decision.

Johnson said none of his information proved persuasive when presented to the city. He said they listened to him politely, thanked him, and made the motion to recommend approval "as soon as I sat down.''

He filed his lawsuit in October, and said that he called the sheriff's office shortly after. He said Cenex had parked its anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks at the property line nearest his home and he could smell a leak. He said they were moved after a Department of Agriculture inspector arrived, but that he had been told the tanks used to haul the fertilizer to fields are considered "farm wagons'' and not subject to setback requirements.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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