MOUNT VERNON - The business group behind a $2.1 billion fertilizer plant to be built west of Mount Vernon searched extensively for five months before settling on Posey County as its preferred site, according to one of the executives involved in the deal. For the better part of a year, Midwest Fertilizer Corp., which is backed by an international group of investors including Pakistan- based Fatima Group, has been working toward building a nitrogen fertilizer plant in Posey County.
The project took two big steps forward Thursday.
In midafternoon, representatives from both the county and the company signed a letter of agreement finalizing the county's offer of incentives. The signing was ceremonial, as the incentives still must be approved by the Posey County Council and Commissioners.
Later in the day, Posey County's Board of Zoning Appeals approved a special use permit for the project - one of a number of government approvals that will be necessary as the project moves along.
The $2.1 billion plant is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs during the three years it will take to build it, plus 200 permanent jobs once the plant is up and running.
"We are really proud to be here," Midwest Fertilizer Director of Technology Ahsen Uddin said during the signing ceremony.
Others who participated in the signing included Mike Chorlton, who Midwest Fertilizer has tapped to become its startup chief executive officer; Posey County Council President Bob Gentil; and Posey County Commission President Carl Schmitz.
The plant is planned for a 219-acre site southeast of Sauerkraut Lane and Mackey Ferry Road. The property, which is currently undeveloped, is in an industrial area southwest of downtown Mount Vernon.
About 75 people attended a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, and a number of them voiced their opinions on the project.
Some, including representatives from area labor organizations, said they welcome the project and the jobs it will bring.
Others voiced a number of concerns, including plant safety, increased traffic and the site's proximity to residential areas.
"The infrastructure on that side of town is not adequate for this," said Brent Brauser, who said he lives within a quartermile of the proposed plant site.
Brauser, along with several other commenters, said the Ports of Indiana would be a better location. Midwest Fertilizer originally had identified that site as its preferred location, but after the state of Indiana withdrew its offer of state economic incentives that location was no longer an option.
"We supported the port site, but we don't have access to the port site," Chorlton told the group.
Regarding safety concerns, Uddin said the plant will be built and operated according to federal safety standards. Uddin said Fatima Group's two existing fertilizer plants in Pakistan each have excellent safety records and operate according to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
Each of those plants has operated for more than 12 million man- hours without a reportable injury, Uddin said.
"We have worked very hard for these kinds of records," Uddin told the group.
Posey County came onto the radar screen of the Pakistan-based company when it wanted to build a new plant and was looking for a specific combination of factors that it couldn't find in its home country.
"We didn't have any opportunity to grow within Pakistan," Uddin said.
So the company started looking for possible plant sites. Uddin said sites in Africa, Canada and numerous states in the U.S. initially were considered.
The U.S. in particular was attractive, he said, because of the shale gas boom of recent years. New technology has enabled energy companies to access deposits of natural gas in areas previously considered inaccessible, and as a result U.S. natural gas supplies have become more abundant and affordable.
Natural gas is a key raw material in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer.
Also important, Uddin said, was that any feasible site needed to be close to natural gas lines, rail lines and highways.
"You have to zero in on that particular triangulation," Uddin said.
Proximity to an agricultural customer base was also a consideration.
Finally, Uddin said, Posey County and a site in another state made it onto the firm's shortlist. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels was quick to offer state incentives for the project, Uddin said, which helped seal the deal.
That offer fell apart after Gov. Mike Pence came into office and learned that Fatima's fertilizer had been making its way into improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.
Citing security concerns, Pence withdrew the offer of incentives in May.
But Uddin said Midwest Fertilizer pressed on with its plans because it knew that it had not done anything wrong.
In recent months, Fatima has worked with U.S. military officials to develop stricter controls on Fatima's fertilizer supply chain, and to develop a safer formula that is much less explosive.
Chorlton said joint testing of that formula is scheduled to take place later this month in Pakistan. Representatives from the U.S. military are set to take part in that testing. Chorlton said he is unsure whether the current federal government shutdown will affect the testing schedule.
Another significant step in the project will come when Midwest Fertilizer submits its site plan to Posey County's Area Plan Commission.
That step will likely happen in February, said John Taylor, executive director of the Posey County Economic Development Partnership.
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