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District judge sides with Montevideo in dissension over ammonia storage

The Farmers Union Co-op Oil Company of Montevideo expanded 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 city's Smith Addition. Tribune photo

MONTEVIDEO -- A district court judge has found in favor of the city of Montevideo and against the homeowner who challenged a city permit allowing an anhydrous ammonia storage facility near his home.

District Judge Paul Nelson ruled in an order filed Feb. 16 in Chippewa County that the city's issuance of a conditional use permit for the facility was not "unreasonably arbitrary or capricious.''

Kim Johnson had challenged the permit issued to Farmers Union Co-op Oil Company, or Cenex, to build an expanded anhydrous ammonia storage facility.

The company erected three storage tanks holding a total of 78,000 gallons of the agricultural fertilizer on an existing propane storage site. It is located on the company's property in the Smith Addition industrial park of Montevideo. It is zoned for industrial use.

Johnson and his wife, Cynthia Johnson, have their home just outside of the city limits. Their home and those of neighboring residences are within several hundred feet of the site.

The court had ruled last spring 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.

The city subsequently completed additional work and hosted a public hearing, and issued a conditional use permit. The facility was erected last fall under conditions of the new permit, according to Montevideo City Manager Steve Jones.

While Judge Nelson found that the city had fulfilled the legal requirements for issuing the permit, he noted that he agrees with and shares some of the safety concerns raised by Johnson.

In a memorandum attached to the ruling, the judge stated: "This matter raises competing interests and legitimate concerns on both sides of this argument. While this Court still has reservations relating to health and safety in view of documented anhydrous ammonia releases in the state, the Court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the governing body.''

Johnson had argued that setback requirements in other states are more protective of public safety than those in Minnesota. Minnesota law requires that anhydrous storage facilities of under 100,000 gallons cannot be within "400 feet from any residence, school, hospital, or other place of public assembly.''

If released, anhydrous ammonia greatly expands and its vapors are harmful if contacted.

Johnson pointed to accidental releases from other fixed storage sites in the state, and warned that the location of this facility puts many city residents at risk. There are numerous homes located within a quarter mile of the site. There is also a city park, campground, and the City Hall, police and fire stations within one-half mile of the site.

Johnson said he sees the ruling as a "technical, legal decision,'' adding "it doesn't make it morally right.''

He remains concerned about the potential for accidental release. With a 5 mph breeze from the southeast, the vapors would reach his home within 68 seconds, he said.

Johnson said the city cannot guarantee harm will not occur to him or others should an accidental release occur, no matter how well trained or how quickly emergency personnel might respond.

Tom Cherveny

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

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