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Challenges at INL

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Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls gathering, Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters praised Idaho's elected officials for their solid support of INL as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lab confronts formidable cybersecurity, homeland security, nuclear energy, radioactive waste management and nonproliferation challenges.

In a presentation titled “Securing the Nation's Energy Future,” Peters recalled how he met former U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus a few months after he started directing INL in October 2015.

Andrus, who died last August at the age of 85, and Phil Batt, another former Idaho governor, have been vocal critics of allowing more spent nuclear fuel to be shipped to INL in violation of the “1995 Settlement Agreement,” expressing concern that Idaho could become the nation's de facto spent nuclear fuel repository.

The agreement struck between Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE nearly 25 years ago allows for 1,135 shipments of spent fuel to come to INL for interim storage over 40 years, including 575 shipments from the Navy. It also could come from other DOE sites, foreign research reactors, universities and private companies directly supporting DOE research and development.

The agreement also calls for DOE to remove all spent nuclear fuel from Idaho no later than 2035, treat all high level INL waste for final disposal elsewhere by 2035, remove transuranic waste by no later than Dec. 31, 2018, and place all spent fuel in dry storage by Dec. 31, 2023, but not above the Snake River Plain Aquifer.

If DOE fails to remove all spent fuel by 2035, Idaho could fine it $60,000 per day. If it fails to meet any agreement milestones, the state could ask a federal court to block further spent fuel shipments to Idaho. Some of those milestones have been missed, especially pertaining to the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) and removal of 900,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored underground at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC).

Peters indicated that when he first met Andrus, the late governor was very frank about upholding the 1995 agreement's terms. “I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. All of us miss Governor Andrus,” he said.

Peters commended Idaho's congressional delegation, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and the state's legislators for their continued robust support for INL and its many activities, heaping special praise on the Idaho Legislature for funding a Collaborative Computing Center and a Cybercore Integration Center that will be constructed on 13 acres, with groundbreaking scheduled in mid-April.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Appropriations Committee (JFAC) also recently approved $3 million in funding for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a research and education consortium located in Idaho Falls that involves INL, Idaho State University, Boise State University, the University of Idaho and the University of Wyoming.

Peters praised Rep. Raul Labrador for being generous with his time when Peters is in Washington; Sen. Mike Crapo, who has been very instrumental in pushing nuclear innovations, and Sen. Jim Risch, who is deeply committed to INL's national security mission. He was especially effusive in his praise for Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs the U.S. House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“INL owes so much to the chairman for what he has done,” Peters said of Simpson. “He's a tremendous leader for the state.”

The day before his City Club address, Peters was on Capitol Hill in Washington testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology about how DOE's laboratories provide world-leading technology in science. It was the same day Zachary Tudor, INL associate lab director of National and Homeland Security, testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee about cybersecurity threats.

Peters mentioned he has spent a lot of time in the nation's capital dealing with pressing budget, national security, nuclear energy and high technology issues. Noting that about 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear energy, he said many commercial reactors are undergoing financial and legal stresses, and some units are being prematurely decommissioned when they can safely operate for 20 to 80 years.

“If the existing fleet isn't protected and preserved, it will be difficult to go forward,” he said, adding that Russia and China are constructing nuclear reactors. “R&D budgets need to be stable.”

With Iran and North Korea posing threats to national security, it's even more urgent to develop the next generation of nuclear technology, he emphasized, pointing out the Trump administration is bullish for nuclear energy, and the sector is getting a lot of attention in Washington.

Cybersecurity funding is not under pressure nor facing cutbacks like other federal programs. He mentioned the federal government has the capability to closely monitor the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea. It also is doing all in its power to protect the nation's extensive electricity grid.

“I'm ready for a more optimistic environment,” Peter said, praising partnerships between the federal government and private companies. He said plans by NuScale Power and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) for locating first-of-its-kind small modular reactors (SMRs) that could generate 50 megawatts of power at the INL site have made significant licensing and financing progress in recent months.

Two bills enacted by the Idaho Legislature that would have a positive impact on the NuScale project at INL are awaiting Otter's signature in Boise. One would allow a property tax exemption originally targeted for an Areva project to be applied to the small modular reactors. The other would exempt two of 12 SMRs from sales tax. Federal tax credits also may be implemented.

Peters predicted if the SMR technology proves successful upon starting its first commercial production of nuclear energy in 2026, that could create hundreds of construction jobs, unleash an energy renaissance and replicate in eastern Idaho the “Magic Valley miracle” that spawned Chobani, Clif Bars and a host of other businesses in the Twin Falls region.

Peters, however, warned if small amounts of spent nuclear fuel cannot be brought into Idaho for research purposes, the INL's overall mission will be jeopardized. “If they don't let us do this, we can't solve bigger problems.”

He said when DOE Secretary Rick Perry visited the Idaho site last May, discussions between DOE, Otter and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden were initiated and trust between the state and federal government began to be rebuilt.

The INL director noted that President Donald Trump recently praised last year's reactivation of INL's world class Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT). Peters also expressed confidence its Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) will continue to be operated in the long term.

INL recently lost $20 million in federal research funding when spent nuclear fuel had to be diverted from INL to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a development Peters characterized as “a slippery slope.”
 

From Agrium to DEQ

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July marked the second anniversary of John Tippets' appointment as director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality after working 40 years in various capacities for the phosphate mining and fertilizer processing operations of Agrium and its predecessors near Soda Springs.

“It's been an interesting transition,” Tippets told me, stressing he has proven since he was appointed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on July 6, 2015 that – despite misgivings by some that it was like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” – he can make difficult decisions without a conflict of interest.

“I agreed to recuse myself from issues that dealt directly and primarily with Agrium. I did not recuse myself from dealing with issues for any of the phosphate companies. Those are big issues for the department, and it's a lot of what we do,” he said.

Tippets has delegated other IDEQ employees to attend meetings and sign documents pertaining to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that involves Agrium and other companies.

“I know what's going on. I get reports, but I'm not involved at all in the decision making. So, I would say from my perspective, it's worked very well. I think the department is able to do its work and avoid the perception of a conflict of interest with the director,” he said, adding his extensive background gives him an understanding about issues that pertain to protecting and enhancing Idaho's air, water and land.

Starting in 1996, the death of sheep, cattle and horses from ingesting vegetation contaminated by selenium in the vicinity of historic phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho prompted companies – including Agrium, the J.R. Simplot Co. and Monsanto – to cooperate with federal, state and tribal agencies to investigate and address selenium-related environmental and public health issues.

It was determined selenium contamination is concentrated in about 75 square miles of active and historic mine lease areas within the 2,500-square-miles phosphate resource region. Jeff Cundick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) minerals branch chief in Pocatello, told me that 15 large selenium-contaminated sites have been identified.

Selenium is a mineral that enhances metabolism in small amounts as it occurs naturally in water and some foods. In large amounts, however, it can prove toxic.

Tippets said plans to remediate the contaminated selenium sites were progressing well when he retired as Agrium's public affairs manager two years ago. Calling the problem “a legacy issue,” the IDEQ chief said phosphate companies did not know when they were mining for decades that selenium had the potential of becoming a contamination issue. The selenium is contained in shale sandwiched between layers of phosphate ore, not in the ore itself.

In issuing mining permits, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM often required companies such as Beker Industries, Nu-West Industries (Agrium's predecessors), Agrium, Monsanto and Simplot to put the shale on top when mines were back filled, not realizing that exposing the shale to air and water released the selenium into the environment, Tippets said. Now that shale must be buried with impervious caps on top when new mines are developed.

“So, they're not creating more problems with selenium, but they haven't got all the past problems resolved yet, either. So, it's an ongoing issue, but they're making progress, and they know how to deal with it today. So, they're on the right track,” Tippets said.

When the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were enacted in the 1970s, it was envisioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have oversight authority, but states would run regulatory programs, he said. Idaho is in the process of getting primacy for a program dealing with water discharges by municipalities and industries.

“In Idaho, we have to be as stringent as the federal government to have primacy, but Idaho law says we cannot be more stringent. We're trying to find that sweet spot. We do have some flexibility in some areas, and we exercise them when we can,” Tippets said, noting there are a few high profile issues that are in dispute between the EPA and IDEQ.

Idaho is prepared to go to court against the EPA in regards to imposing on the Gem State an onerous fish consumption standard used as a human health criteria for Oregon. “It's not resolved yet, but we think we came up with the right solution for Idaho. I don't want to demonize the EPA. We work together with them very well and have a good relationship, but when we think what they want to impose on Idaho isn't appropriate, we're certainly willing to push back.”

When Tippets started his phosphate career four decades ago with Agricultural Products, which later became Beker Industries, he hired on as a laborer during an extremely cold December, using a jack hammer, pick and shovel, pouring concrete at 20 degrees below zero, working 12-hour days.

Beker shut down its Soda Springs fertilizer plant in the summer of 1986. It reopened as a Nu-West Industries operation the following summer. In 1995, it was sold to Canadian-based Agrium.

Meanwhile, Tippets learned how to operate heavy equipment and spent many years working as an instrumentation technician. He earned a bachelor's degree in independent studies from Brigham Young University via correspondence. While working in human resources, he got a master's degree in human resource management by taking night classes at Utah State University.

He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1988, but resigned during his sixth term after 11 years when he became Agrium's human resource manager. He was out of the Legislature for 11 years when he was appointed to the Idaho Senate to replace Bob Geddes. Tippits resigned his Senate seat while serving his third term to become IDEQ director.

After taking his government position, Tippets was approached by a legislator who asked him, “How many crazy environmentalists do you have working in that organization?” He said he responded: “If we have any, I don't know who they are,” commending his staff as professional Idahoans dedicated to reasonably protecting the state's natural resources and spending tax dollars wisely.

Tippets said he has been appointed to serve until the end of Otter's third term, which will expire in January 2019. He said he would be willing to stay on for a transition period to assist his successor, but “it would be hard to commit for another four years.” Otter is the nation's longest serving incumbent governor whose time in office has run consecutively. “Honestly, I can say that I've enjoyed this more than I even anticipated,” Tippets said.

Premier’s dilemma

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At a recent Idaho Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) meeting in Pocatello, Premier Technology Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder Douglas Sayer (pictured) testified that his Blackfoot-based design, engineering, manufacturing and construction management company is on the horns of a very challenging dilemma.

Since its start in 1996, Premier Technology has grown to employ about 300 highly skilled professionals, including engineers and machinists, at its cutting edge 210,000-square-foot fabrication plant conspicuously seen west of Blackfoot’s main Interstate 15 interchange.

Its welders are stringently trained to work with a variety of metals, ranging from stainless and carbon steel to exotic elements such as titanium.

Premier has done extensive sophisticated custom work for the Idaho National Laboratory and other U.S. Department of Energy contractors, but Sayer told LINE commissioners at Idaho State University that it’s a misconception to believe that private companies securing government contracts have grabbed brass rings.

He said it’s an uphill battle for relatively small businesses to get bank loans for such contracts as they struggle to make large capital investments. Only about half of Premier Technology’s business mix is related to the nuclear industry, Sayer noted.

“Food processing and mining allow us to participate on the nuclear side,” he said, mentioning that if it were up to his wife Shelly, Premier’s chief executive officer since 2013, the company would not be involved in the nuclear business due to its significant expenses and difficulty breaking even. Premier has heavily invested in research and development for new technologies.

Premier believes it has a moral obligation to maintain top quality levels of manufacturing to protect the environment and Idaho’s Snake River Plain aquifer, Sayer said, but pointed out companies in such countries as India are not held to the same standards or pay scales, making it more difficult to compete.

Competitors in Missouri and the United Kingdom see the economic advantages of developing Small Modular Reactors as the wave of the nuclear industry’s future and are aggressively pursuing the development of SMRs. NuScale Power has indicated it could start placing orders for SMR components as soon as 2019.

“We’re a little bit behind the eight ball if we want to get serious about it,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has imposed 60-hours-per-week mandatory shifts at its plant to keep up. “We’re short on human capital. … There’s a shortage of qualified talent in Idaho now.”

Unlike Chobani, which can tap the resources of the College of Southern Idaho, a community college in Twin Falls, for its yogurt plant employment needs, the nuclear industry’s requirements demand much higher training proficiencies. “There’s a difference between teaching and training,” Sayer said.

The Premier Technology executive urged LINE committee members to create a subcommittee to address the compelling need for trained, qualified personnel in the nuclear industry and initiate an effective strategy. The INL needs “top shelf talent” and is not a place for on-the-job training, Sayer stressed. “We’ve got to think outside the box.”

He also emphasized that Idaho ranks among the lowest states in terms of education investments. “We can’t wait any longer,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has considered acquiring oil and gas companies in Utah and Wyoming to secure their pipeline welding talent.

He also noted there is a large difference between nuclear performance-based welding requirements and those of the petroleum industry. Many if not most welding instructors in ISU’s College of Technology hail from the oil and gas industry. Idaho has not addressed the dire need for nuclear-qualified welders, machinists and crafts, he said, mentioning he has been working with ISU for 15 years.

“Five years ago I could operate every piece of equipment in our facility. Today I cannot operate any of them. That’s how far manufacturing has advanced,” Sayer said.

Premier Technology offered someone in Carlsbad, N.M., a quarter million dollar salary, a $50,000 relocation stipend and six weeks vacation to move to Idaho, but the individual turned it down because he was making the equivalent amount working part time, Sayer said. “And Carlsbad is not the prettiest place on earth,” he remarked.

CWI’s legacy

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Mark Mendiola, a longtime eastern Idaho journalist, recently worked for the Idaho Cleanup Project.

When I first started covering the Idaho Cleanup Project’s many activities at the Idaho National Laboratory site for CH2M-WG Idaho (CWI) as a communications specialist in November 2009, it was especially reassuring for me to witness the high caliber of veteran employees who had racked up many decades of experience working with high levels of radioactivity in a very hazardous environment.

As a “boots-on-the-ground roving reporter” for CWI, I was privileged to experience first hand projects that took Herculean efforts and tremendous resourcefulness to complete, invariably weeks ahead of schedule and substantially under budget.

There was no task too formidable for teams of project managers, radiological control technicians, engineers, demolition workers, laborers, etc., to tackle. A can-do attitude, coupled with a mutual respect and genuine camaraderie among the ranks, combined to work wonders on the Arco Desert.

Stringent safety requirements took top precedence throughout the company and were interwoven throughout CWI’s cultural fabric. Everyone covered each other’s back so all the employees could return safely to their families at the close of business each day. That commendable attitude impressed me from day one. Achieving safety records without lost time injuries for countless employee hours was the norm.

With camera in tow and notebook in hand, I was charged with regularly visiting the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC), the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), the Idaho CERCLA Disposal Facility (ICDF) and the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) area to chronicle the many successful projects under way at each facility. It was an enviable assignment few have had the opportunity to experience.

Many of the projects undertaken by CWI proved to be groundbreaking and even revolutionary in terms of the technology and procedures developed to address specific challenges. During CWI’s 11 years managing the ICP, it often would take the lead among U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractors nationwide and counterparts internationally in introducing standards that have become the norm in the nuclear industry.

It was CWI that proved -- and improved on -- a patented sodium treatment process using spritzing, distilling and immersing techniques at MFC and INTEC now used throughout the DOE complex.

Its intrepid Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) workers safely demolished or removed three nuclear reactors, two hot cells, a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and more than 200 other buildings and structures over the course of CWI’s DOE contract.

It was astounding a few months ago to watch the massive jaws of heavy equipment skillfully run by D&D operators rip apart and voraciously devour a large MFC building in only a matter of hours like mechanical tyrannosaurus rexes, leaving a Jurassic Park graveyard of metal beams, siding and insulation strewn about in their wake.

They and their co-workers are now concentrating on dismantling the iconic Experimental Breeder Reactor II dome, using an innovative water jet cutting system to peel it like a giant onion before the year ends.

Waste Management personnel, including Packaging and Transportation employees, completed 364 shipments of Remote-Handled Transuranic (RH-TRU) waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, including the first-ever shipment of such waste there, and completed 60 U-233 shipments to the Nevada National Security Site without incident.

RWMC employees exhumed 4.11 acres of 5.69 acres (72 percent) of buried waste required by a 2008 agreement with 97 percent of the 7,485 cubic meters of targeted waste packaged, completing buried waste exhumation at seven Accelerated Retrieval Project (ARP) areas. Work now continues at the Subsurface Disposal Area’s eighth ARP site. Some 7,300 drums and 60 waste boxes have been successfully treated.

CWI Environmental Restoration workers have remediated 136 waste sites and suspected waste sites. They also have reduced 184,400 acres of potential unexploded ordnance areas to 6,300 acres, which protects crews that work out in the sagebrush.

At INTEC, 3,186 units of spent nuclear fuel were transferred from wet to dry storage, and a tank farm where 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing liquid waste are stored underground has been successfully closed. And the list continues …

Even the controversial Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) painstakingly developed from the ground up by CWI has achieved significant strides in advance of processing those 900,000 gallons with state-of-the-art technology. Simulant runs have proven feasible at the 53,000-square-foot facility before the liquid waste is converted into a more stable form. The finish line for that grueling marathon is actually within sight.

Last February, DOE awarded a $1.4 billion, five-year contract for managing the ICP to Texas-based Fluor Idaho, which took effect on June 1. Coinciding with that new contract, many long-time CWI employees have decided to hang it up and retire, including many key managers and engineers who have worked on the IWTU project virtually since its inception.

With the departure of so many seasoned CWI employees occurring at once, a legacy of invaluable experience, an unrivaled safety record and institutional knowledge not easily replaced also is exiting. They professionally transformed a work site fraught with danger into one of DOE’s safest locations with minimal damage or injury.

It’s been my privilege and pleasure to have worked with such a diversified group of talented CWI individuals, ranging from project managers and subcontractors to information technologists, accountants and administrative assistants. Cherished friendships have been nurtured within CWI’s tight knit family. The end of the CWI era leaves some mighty big boots for Fluor Idaho to fill.

Two economies

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

To paraphrase the start of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” Pocatello’s economy has witnessed the best of times and worst of times in recent decades, experiencing bipolar mood swings that have wildly swung like a pendulum.

Shutdowns of the Bucyrus-Erie complex, Garrett Freightlines’ trucking empire, FMC’s elemental phosphorus plant, various Gateway West Industrial Center manufacturing concerns, Ballard Medical, etc., have been major Gate City setbacks over the years. Closure of the Heinz frozen food plant earlier this year in Pocatello was another major economic and psychological blow.

At its peak, the Heinz plant in Pocatello employed more than 800 who worked its food processing lines, eclipsing the J.R. Simplot Co., ON Semiconductor and Union Pacific Railroad as the Gate City’s largest private employer.

Heinz’ announcement several months ago that it would close its 500,000-square-foot factory near the Quinn Road overpass and terminate its remaining 410 employees stunned the community, sending shock waves throughout Bannock County. The unexpected shutdown was devastating for many and a gut punch to Pocatello’s economy.

That bad news came on heels of the ignominious shutdown of the $700 million Hoku polysilicon plant in Pocatello. Once operating, Hoku was to initially employ 200 and eventually boost its payroll to 400. Those ambitious plans quickly evaporated into the stratosphere, leaving many contractors in a financial lurch, when Hoku filed for bankruptcy.

At the end of October, however, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad announced that Amy’s Kitchen had acquired the Heinz plant and expects to begin operations as soon as December, initially hiring 200 but anticipating its payroll could swell to 1,000 in 15 years -- an announcement that frankly exceeded my expectations.

Amy’s Kitchen Co-Founder Rachel Berliner and CFO Mark Rudolph joined Otter and Blad, plus city, state and county officials, at the revamped Pocatello Regional Airport to make the announcement to a large, enthusiastic, receptive crowd.

Berliner praised Idaho’s swift response in making the mutually beneficial arrangement possible. Rudolph said Amy’s Kitchen could expend $75 million in capital investments here over the plant’s duration. He said the company’s growth would have exceeded 30 percent this year had the Gate City operation been up and running.

To their credit, Otter, Blad, Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, Bannock Development Corp. Executive Director John Regetz and a host of other Idahoans rapidly mobilized to finalize the Amy’s Kitchen deal, giving laid off Heinz workers a boost of direly needed hope and encouragement, revitalizing an important production site.

Amy’s Kitchen is the nation’s leading maker of organic, vegetarian and non-GMO convenience foods, riding a burgeoning wave of popularity among Millennials and other health conscious Americans that promises to ensure the private, family-owned company’s longevity. The California-based company has enjoyed double digit growth since its inception 26 years ago.

Amy’s Kitchen employees in Pocatello are expected to average $33,000 a year in wages that are anticipated to total $342 million over 15 years, in addition to health benefits and scholarship opportunities. New state tax revenue from the operation is projected to hit $35.7 million. Commerce’s Sayer said Idaho’s reimbursement will be worth $6.7 million.

Some critics have questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of granting Amy’s Kitchen a 26 percent credit on its corporate income, sales and payroll taxes through 2029 under Idaho’s new Tax Reimbursement Incentive, which took effect on July 1, and Bannock County commissioners giving it a matching 75 percent tax abatement on the existing plant and future investments.

Proponents counter that the hundreds of food processing jobs created, the multiplier effect of wages paid, the positive impact on eastern Idaho’s agriculture sector, spinoff business generated and vote of confidence from Amy’s Kitchen more than offset any negatives from the tax incentives, which competing states effectively have used to attract industry at Idaho’s expense. (more…)

At the energy summit

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other high-powered industry and government speakers generated a buzz of voltage at the recent Intermountain Energy Summit in Idaho Falls attended by some 300 participants from 19 states and two Canadian provinces.

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper warned those in attendance midway through the summit that the Shilo Inn where they were meeting might be blacked out after a truck slammed into a power pole in the city. As it turned out, the lights stayed on, but many of those at the energy conference could not help but be bemused by the incident and see the irony.

Casper and Post Register Publisher Roger Plothow were driving forces behind the successful summit, which took 10 months to organize and drew Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Rep. Mike Simpson, Gov. Butch Otter, Idaho National Engineering Director John Grossenbacher, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Kristine Svinicki and other notables.

Featured speaker Robert Bryce, an energy issues author and journalist, pointed out that while the United States leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, even if it could cut those greenhouse gases to zero, global CO2 emissions would increase by 7 percent as Third World countries burn more coal to ramp up their economies.

Bryce noted that coal consumption in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia -- with populations totaling 400 million -- has increased from 2,500 percent to 5,900 percent since 1985.

“They are building their economies on the back of hydrocarbons,” following the examples of the United States, Canada and Europe, Bryce said, adding that China and India also are burning large volumes of fossil fuels to stoke their economic growth.

Calling himself a “resolute agnostic” in regards to the climate change debate, Bryce said he is adamantly in favor of nuclear energy and natural gas, adding “you can’t just wish coal away.” (more…)

Merging development groups

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

When he addressed a large crowd of eastern Idaho business and government leaders May 30 at Idaho Central Credit Union’s state headquarters in Chubbuck, Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer acknowledged there has been some resistance to merging the economic development agencies of Bannock, Bingham and Bonneville counties into one entity.

Accompanied by Idaho Labor Department Director Ken Edmunds, Sayer spoke at a Regional Economic Development Initiative gathering sponsored by ICCU, Pocatello Medical Center and Idaho National Laboratory. Those attending included INL Director John Grossenbacher, five mayors from the region and congressional representatives.

Similar meetings were held at Idaho Falls in February and Blackfoot in March to address possibly creating a single economic development organization for the region.

Some Pocatellans have expressed concerns that the drive to merge Bannock Development Corporation with Grow Idaho Falls Inc. and Bingham Economic Development Corporation will be to the advantage of Idaho Falls and Blackfoot at Pocatello’s expense.

Sayer said he has heard some refer to creating an eastern Idaho economic development organization “a hostile takeover” and express misgivings that the matter is being forced on them. Others have wanted it created as soon as June.

“There’s a lot of mistrust under the surface,” the commerce director said, mentioning he has heard frustrations that are 10 years old. “If this fails, it will not be resurrected in our professional lifetimes.”

He urged those in attendance to proceed slowly, clarify their message and listen to each other. Combined, eastern Idaho’s work force is the second largest in the state. The Interstate 15 corridor has “a powerful collection of assets,” he said, noting it took Magic Valley 10 years to hit its stride and perfect its business model.

“If eastern Idaho comes together, the ‘great state of Ada’ would wonder what in the heck happened,” Sayer remarked.

Sayer said Idaho is “a long ways behind” competing with other states, some of which are merging as regional forces in the Southeast and the Midwest. He agreed with Mike Mullis of J.M. Mullis, Inc., a project location specialist, who said Idaho has an identity problem. Mullis assisted in bringing a new Clif Bars bakery to Twin Falls.

Sayer emphasized that Idaho boasts robust aerospace, manufacturing and energy industries in addition to its agricultural strengths.

Edmunds said a central focal point or voice is needed to represent regional economic development, but local organizations also need to be retained in some format. He also suggested an independent group be brought in to evaluate the eastern Idaho economic development issue. (more…)

Otter at Pocatello

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Facing a May 20 Republican primary election challenge from Idaho Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter touted the state’s economic advancements under his leadership when he spoke at an April 29 Greater Pocatello Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Fulcher, Senate majority caucus chairman, hopes to derail Otter’s drive to secure a third term as the Gem State’s chief executive. During his morning speech to a crowd of about 400 at the Red Lion, Otter said after his 99-year-old mother urged him to run for re-election, he helped her fill out her absentee ballot.

Otter paraphrased Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke who said all that needs to happen for a good organization to go bad is for good people to do nothing. “Idaho is in pretty good shape,” he said. “The economy in the state continues to grow.”

Publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes have ranked Idaho as the fifth best state in which to do business. The top five states are all governed by Republicans in the West, with Utah topping the list, Otter said.

While much has been said of North Dakota’s oil and natural gas boom, it is not well known that Idaho is now a natural gas producing state with 4.2 million cubic feet a day of “sweet gas” pumped in southwestern Idaho’s Payette County, where Idaho Power runs the Langley Gulch Power Plant capable of generating 300 megawatts of power, the governor said.

In 2008, Otter launched “Project 60” to boost Idaho’s Gross Domestic Product from $51.5 billion in 2007 when he took office to $60 billion last year. The state’s GDP is projected to hit $62.4 billion this year, creating jobs and broadening the tax base, he said. “We’re running ahead of economic projections a little bit.”

Idaho’s unemployment rate went from 2.7 percent about seven years ago to a peak of nearly 9 percent about four years ago before declining to its existing rate of 5.2 percent, which is 1.5 percent better than the nation’s jobless rate, Otter noted. (more…)

Education and Idaho

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Idaho’s natural beauty and the inherent decency of its people can mask serious problems confronting the state, Idaho Business for Education’s president and chief executive officer says, comparing the Gem State to an old, stately, beautiful mansion whose foundation is rotting, cracking and direly in need of repair.

Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon, Rod Gramer said unless its owners get to work and invest money, the foundation will crumble and the damage will worsen.

Answering an audience question, Gramer -- a veteran Idaho Statesman and KTVB news professional who recently returned to Boise after working in Oregon and Florida -- said it has been estimated that it will take $82 million to $120 million to replace the education funding lost in Idaho the past six years.

He commended legislators for this year pumping $32 million in new dollars for education, stressing that that money should be viewed as an investment, not an expense, emphasizing the dots need to be connected between education and Idaho’s economy. He called it “the best public school budget in seven years.”

Gramer said simple formulas mean a weak education system, plus a weak economy, equal a poor quality of life as opposed to a strong education system and a strong economy combining to boost Idaho’s standard of living.

“Fate won’t determine this. The people of Idaho must decide. The choice is ours,” he said, warning that like the Roman Emperor Nero, Idahoans can fiddle while metaphorical Idaho burns.

Gramer noted that in 2012, Idaho ranked 50th among the states in per capita wages. Idaho was No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of hourly workers -- 7.7 percent -- who made the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 or less in 2012. Nationally, 4.7 percent made minimum wage or less in 2012.

The Idaho Department of Labor reported that more young people are leaving the state than moving to the state.

“These are statistics we ignore at our own peril,” Gramer said. Rebuilding starts with education, which is “a passport to the American dream.” Government for and by the people cannot and will not succeed without an educated populace who can make wise decisions, he added.

Only 39 percent of Idahoans have earned college degrees or have post-secondary trade certification, but 61 percent have some college, high school or less. That level of education was fine in the past for most of Idaho’s history when mining, logging, farming and other such jobs sufficed, but that is not now the case, Gramer said, noting manual work such as driving trucks or working in a body shop now requires computer training.

When the J.R. Simplot Co.’s new 380,000-square-foot Caldwell potato processing plant opens in April, its robotics will make it the most state-of-the-art processing plant of its kind in the world, but only 250 will be needed to operate it. Its existing plants in Nampa, Caldwell and Aberdeen will be shut down with a net loss of 800 jobs.

“The shift in the job market is all over the United States, causing a dramatic effect on the economy and the lives of people,” Gramer said. (more…)

A new phosphate project

agrium
A large truck hauls phosphate ore from an Agrium open pit mine on the Caribou/Targhee National Forest. (photo/Mark Mendiola

 

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

An earlier version of this column appeared in Green Markets

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved the transfer of operating rights for the Dry Ridge Phosphate Project in southeastern Idaho from Solvoy USA Inc. to Fertoz USA LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fertoz Ltd., an Australian company with phosphate operations in Australia and Canada.

Fertoz joins Canadian companies Agrium, based at Calgary, Alberta, and Stonegate Agricom, based at Toronto, Ontario, as foreign companies hoping to realize hefty profits by developing phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho, but at great up-front capital investments.

Agrium has operated Conda processing plant for decades as Nu-West Industries near Soda Springs and runs the North Rasmussen Ridge Mine. Stonegate Agricom is developing the Paris Hills underground phosphate mine near Bloomington and Paris.

In December, Fertoz acquired an option to explore and acquire up to 100 percent of the Dry Ridge lease on the phosphate-rich Caribou/Targhee National Forest, expanding into the United States as it embarks on an ambitious expansion.

It has engaged World Industrial Minerals as a consultant to provide additional geological services to develop an exploration program in alignment with BLM requirements. Cascade Earth Sciences also has been contracted to start environmental permitting as required by the BLM. CES has teamed with Sound Ecological Endeavours and Sundance Consulting to expedite the biological and archaeological processes, respectively.

The approval process is expected to take 12 to 15 months. Fertoz Managing Director Les Szonyi said the BLM’s approval of transferring Dry Ridge operating rights will allow Fertoz to accelerate the permit and exploration approval process and begin drilling at the end of 2015 in Idaho.

Exploration in the United States requires significant third party input and reports before drilling can be approved, he noted, adding he expects Fertoz will submit in the next few months an exploration application, which outlines the proposed exploration plan. An environmental assessment of the project’s impact also must be submitted. (more…)