SERGEANT BLUFF | The twin sounds of grinding and banging permeate the air at CF Industries' sprawling construction site at Port Neal.
Standing on scaffolding next to towering steel and concrete structures, hard hat-clad workers use tools to shape large sections of pipe and knock them into place so they can be bolted and welded.
Emerging from a third winter of work, CF Industries enters the homestretch of the record $2 billion expansion. With temperatures warming, the fertilizer giant expects its new ammonia plant and urea synthesis and granulation plant to be mechanically complete by the end of June.
"Looking at it, you still see a lot of work that needs to be done," Nick DeRoos, general manager for CF's Port Neal nitrogen fertilizer complex and project director for the expansion, told a Journal reporter during a March 1 tour of the site. "But it's really progressing well."
Nearly all the foundation and underground work has been completed and all but 200 of the 19,173 tons of structural steel has been erected.
A small army of skilled laborers are working feverishly to finish the remaining tasks, from insulating and cladding the structures to laying a labyrinth of 468,000 linear feet of pipe to installing 758 miles of electrical wiring.
Last fall, the number of workers at the 350-acre site peaked at about 4,500, more than double original estimates. By May, the workforce is expected to gradually start ramping down.
"It will continue to decrease as we go through probably the next three months," DeRoos said.
Though some workers hail from the tri-state region, the majority were recruited from nearly every U.S. state. Many out-of-state workers have lived temporarily in Siouxland since the mega project started nearly three years, giving the local economy a huge boost while also further straining the already limited supply of rental housing.
The 2,420-tons-per-day ammonia plant remains on track to begin production in the third quarter, with the 3,850 tons-per-day urea plant starting up somewhat afterward. The two plants must first go through a detailed commissioning, or testing, process.
The new ammonia plant will triple, to about 3,500 tons, the Port Neal complex's daily production of the chemical, the basic building block for nitrogen-based fertilizers.
The expansion added twin storage tanks that will hold about 30,000 tons of ammonia each. The tanks measure 155 feet in diameter and 106 feet tall.
Another newly erected structure is a giant warehouse, measuring 210 feet wide and 1,702 feet long, or nearly a third of a mile. Believed to be the largest of its kind in North America, it will store up to 154,000 tons of granular urea, a solid nitrogen fertilizer that has not been produced at Port Neal in two decades.
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An overhead conveyor system will scoop up granular urea produced at the plant and transport it to the warehouse, where operators can drop the product wherever there is room.
The finished fertilizer products from the new plant will be transported by truck and rail. Construction is nearing completion of a new loading station that will serve multiple semi-trailer trucks at a time. Two new rail spurs will hook up with Union Pacific's nearby main line through the Port Neal area.
Trucks and other vehicles will access the site on a newly built road that connects to Port Neal Road. CF's office staff will move to a new administrative building at the plant entrance.
A large new parking lot at the new east entrance already has been pressed into service, providing auxillary parking for some construction workers. That's helped alleviate the traffic jams on the gravel road that previously provided the only way in and out of the secured construction area.
At daybreak, vehicles had backed up for miles along that north-south road. After clocking in before 6:45 a.m., workers scan their IDs before passing through stadium-like turnstiles. At the end of the workday, it had taken as much as 45 minutes or more for that parking lot to empty out.
Traffic control from the Woodbury County Sheriff's Office also has helped improve the flow of traffic to and from the construction site.
During this past winter, more than 40 inches of snow accumulated on the construction site. A Feb. 2 blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow on the region shut down construction for two days.
Crews also have battled ice, muddy grounds and high winds, which can temporarily shut down the more than dozen cranes on site.
"We have had some weather impacts to the project. There's no doubt about that," DeRoos said in the March 1 interview. "Some days it's a nuisance. Other days, we have to send some people home because they can't be productive."
On the plus side, temperatures were not as frigid the past few months as they were the previous two winters. "We only had a couple feet of frost to go through this winter, instead, of five feet, which it was a couple years ago," he said.
Though most civil engineering work is completed, roads around the site must still be paved. Concrete also must be poured for the floor of the expansive granular urea warehouse.
By project end, more than 725,000 tons of stone, sand and gravel will have been laid for foundations, new roads and parking lots, and more than 165,000 cubic yards of concrete will have been poured.
The expansion will add 125 new full-time jobs, more than doubling CF's Port Neal workforce. Most of the new workers have already been hired and have gone through training.
Another 700 indirect jobs also are forecast to be generated locally, through the additional economic activity required to support the larger plant.