A new law will allow a proposed fertilizer plant near Terre Haute to run with a low carbon footprint, but residents living near the facility worry the plant could have a negative effect on their health and the local environment.
Wabash Valley Resources LLC seeks to repurpose the former SG Solutions Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant into the world’s first anhydrous ammonia plant with a near-zero carbon footprint.
Anhydrous ammonia is a water-free form of ammonia used to produce fertilizer and industrial chemicals.
The company says it will prevent at least 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the air by capturing the gas and injecting it 7,000 feet into the earth. The process is known as carbon capture and sequestration.
But environmentalists and local residents say the process could lead to water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions and even earthquakes caused by injecting the carbon into the ground.
Phibro LLC, the commodities trading company that owns Wabash Valley Resources LLC, is run by Simon Greenshields, the former co-head of investment banking company Morgan Stanley’s Commodity Division. Phibro LLC is investing in energy companies across the globe that can survive low-carbon policies.
“This innovative carbon capture and sequestration project will facilitate the production of green ammonia,” Greenshields said. “Farmers and industrial end users alike will, for the first time, be presented with an opportunity to purchase ammonia produced in an environmentally conscious and sustainable manner and at an affordable price.”
A state law that took effect July 1 will allow Wabash Valley Resources to begin capture and sequestration once it receives a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Class VI permit and abides by several other regulations. The EPA told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that the company had not yet applied for the permit.
EPA permits can take years to receive, and construction of the ammonia plant could take 500 workers an additional three years to complete. Up to 125 permanent workers are expected to be employed full time after construction.
Thomas Baer lives near the facility. He’s worried the ammonia plant could have a serious effect on his favorite natural feature, the Wabash River.
“I’ve always thought it was an overlooked resource. The river is such a beautiful place. It’s the largest non-navigable waterway in the eastern United States,” Baer said. “We don’t need the plant and all that stuff. As far as I’m concerned, all that kind of thing can go, and we can focus mainly on tourism and that kind of thing.”
The Wabash River is the official state river of Indiana. The Wabash River watershed encompasses 73 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Baer says he’s worried that the size of the plant may affect the river’s health and economic viability.
“The amount of carbon that they are going to produce is going to be on a massive scale. That they are going to try to produce ammonia for a four or five state area at this processing plant is very worrisome to me, to be this close to it,” Baer said. “My biggest concern is the amount of coal that they are going to process to manufacture their ammonia.”
Once built, the ammonia plant would be powered by coal, which emits toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases like mercury, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other particulate matter when it is burned.
Wabash Valley Resources says it will eliminate the emissions of one of those – carbon dioxide –through the carbon sequestration pilot project.
During the carbon capture and sequestration process, a plant’s carbon dioxide is captured by a solvent as it travels up a smokestack. That solvent can later be heated, releasing water vapor and leaving behind a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide.
The carbon dioxide and other liquids are then injected into the earth at high pressure through porous rock layers and are trapped under a non-porous layer of rock, known as cap rock, more than a mile underground.
The facility in Vigo County would inject at least 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the saline sandstone aquifer deep underground known as the Mount Simon Sandstone. According to Wabash Valley Resources, ammonia production and carbon dioxide storage will require about 3,000 gallons of water per minute from the Wabash River, or about half the amount of water used by the facility in its former incarnation.
“What are they going to do with that water?” Baer asked. “I guess they are going to dump all of that hot water into the river, which will start the cycle again of churning up the bottom with all of this hot water, and I will have this massive foam line running down the river all the time.”
The company was granted a permit to discharge wastewater into the Wabash River in October 2018. The permit limits the daily and monthly concentrations of certain types of contaminants and sets how and when the company has to monitor for each contaminant.
Baer is not alone with his concerns. Environmental groups from around the state say they worry about the potential water troubles due to the underground carbon dioxide injection.
“There are extraordinary unknowns with respect to the migration of the (carbon dioxide) plume. Where will the plume go,” asked Citizens Action Coalition president Kerwin Olson during a hearing of the Indiana Senate’s Committee on Environmental Affairs. “Will the plume escape the integrity of the storage facility? Will there be contamination to the water? There is an extraordinary amount of uncertainty.”
The Hoosier Environmental Council also expressed concerns about the carbon sequestration project. The group asked about the possibility of carbon dioxide leaking out of storage through minor cracks and potentially contaminating clean water.
A consultant for Wabash Valley Resources, former EPA geologist Jeffrey McDonald, testified that carbon dioxide could escape into drinking water and increase its acidity, leaching toxic heavy metals into the water. McDonald told the committee that the permitting process would minimize the possibility of that occurring.
“That’s why these permits have monitoring wells in the injection zone in overlying formations and shallow formations as well. But the geology is picked suitably so that the carbon dioxide stays within the target formations,” McDonald said.
Environmental groups are also concerned about the possibility of earthquakes caused by the underground injection of carbon dioxide.
The proposed ammonia plant sits atop a tectonic hot spot known as the Wabash Valley seismic zone. The zone is capable of producing M7.0 earthquakes in southwestern Indiana and southeastern Illinois.
The Indiana Geological Survey has tracked six earthquakes of varying magnitudes in the area in the last decade. Environmentalists are concerned that underground injection of carbon dioxide could cause seismic activity in the same way hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been suspected of causing tremors in Oklahoma.
Wabash Valley Resources says advanced technology will allow the company to avoid areas that may induce seismic activity.
“A 3D seismic survey ensures and models all the subsurface layers in this particular area and makes sure that there are no naturally occurring fault zones,” said Nalin Gupta, managing partner of Wabash Valley Resources, LLC. “If there are fault zones, there is no EPA permit. We can only inject in areas where there are no known or existing faults.”
Baer says he thinks the company will operate for several years, then leave Indiana taxpayers and local residents in a lurch.
“You know, after they get all kinds of tax abetments that the state and the federal governments can give them, then will pretty much end up with something that doesn’t work,” Baer said. “I think it’s just going to be a way to get money from the state and the county and the federal government for the corporation that actually owns the Wabash Valley Resources.”