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Souix City reports:

Everything about CF Industries' expansion of its Port Neal fertilizer complex is big, starting with the project's estimated price tag.

The Deerfield, Ill.-based firm expects to spend $1.7 billion, which was the single largest capital investment in Iowa history at the time the mega project was announced Nov. 1, 2012.

The expansion is projected to create 100 permanent jobs, doubling CF's Port Neal workforce, as well as 7,000 indirect jobs generated through increased activity required to support the larger complex.

CF broke ground last fall, starting with moving dirt, laying aggregate and drilling pile. The massive undertaking is scheduled for completion in 2016.

During the 1 1/2 years of construction, staggering quantities of building materials will be used, according to the company, which put out this list:

*Excavating 1.35 million cubic yards of soil, or 33,689 loads on 40-yard dump trucks. If lined up, the trucks would stretch 383 miles, the distance from Sioux City to Madison, Wisc.

*Laying of 592,238 tons of stone, sand and gravel, or 394,825 cubic feet. That's the equivalent of 25,750, 20-yard trucks, stretching the length of 5,150 football fields, or 293 miles, the distance from Sioux City to Iowa City.

*Pouring 145,365 cubic yards of concrete, the equivalent of 14,537, 10-yard trucks, or an average of 40 trucks per day for an entire year.

*Erecting 17,992 tons of structural steel, or the combined weight of 5,997 Ford F-250 pickups.

*Installing 416,018 feet of piping. If lined up end to end, the pipes would extend 79 miles, from Port Neal to the Interstate 29 junction with Interstate 680 in Omaha.

Scores of materials and supplies are arriving via truck and rail. But some items are so heavy or bulky that they will have to be brought up on Missouri River barges.

Barges haven't been used on the waterway locally in about a decade. CF has been building a heavy-duty road to transport the materials from the river to the construction site.

The first barges are expected to arrive during the spring navigation season, sometime in May, Port Neal Plant Manager Nick DeRoos said. The cargo will include vessels that weigh as much as 500 tons each and are up to 28 feet in diameter.

About 300 construction workers are currently at the job site, located just north of CF's existing nitrogen plant, and just south of Sioux City. Those numbers are expected to swell to as many as 2,000 during peak construction, anticipated for between January and May 2015.

For several months, contractors have been laying the foundation for a series of structures. Despite lengthy spells of subzero temps this past winter, contractors have made good progress on the underground work, DeRoos said.

A cluster of towering cranes and pile rigs that dot the landscape. Around 7,000 holes will be drilled, filled with concrete and fitted with foundation caps.

Both cast auger pile and Dewaal pile rigs are deployed. The latter is a European-style pile that uses a screw-shaped tool that penetrates dense soil layers without decompressing the soil. The dirt instead is displaced laterally against the side of the hole, strengthening the pile.

On another portion of the job site, other crews are building the foundation for a warehouse measuring 210 feet wide and 1,800 feet long, or a third of a mile. The warehouse, which will be one of the largest in North America, will store granular urea, a solid nitrogen fertilizer that hasn't been produced at Port Neal in more than 20 years.

By the middle of the summer, steel beams are expected to start rising up out of the ground, followed by the installation of huge vessels such as distillers and reactors.

By July or August, pipe fabrication is expected to begin, he said. Plans call for enclosing the new structures by year's end, allowing electrical and mechanical work to get under way and continue throughout next winter, he said.

The massive project, which will triple the complex's production of ammonia, the basic building block for nitrogen-based fertilizer products, includes construction of a 2,420-tons per-day ammonia plant and a 3,850-tons-per-day urea synthesis and granulation plant.

Port Neal's ammonia production currently goes toward two liquid nitrogen-based fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia and urea ammonium nitrate solutions, or UAN.

Granular urea can be applied separately or mixed with phosphate or potash fertilizers.

The U.S. currently imports more than two-thirds of its urea production, giving CF and other North America manufacturers an incentive to boost domestic production.

The added Port Neal production will replace higher-priced fertilizer imported from other countries, helping farmers in Iowa and other Midwest states save millions of dollars annually.

CF, North America's largest producer and distributor of nitrogen plant nutrients, is spending a combined $3.8 billion to expand production at Port Neal and a facility in Donaldsonville, La.

Demand for nitrogen fertilizer, which must be applied to corn and certain other crops to add nutrients to the soil, has surged in recent years as farmers, spurred by rising grain prices, plant more acres.

Also playing a key role in CF's decision to expand: new technologies that extract natural gas from shale rock formations in North America. That's lowered prices for the fuel, which accounts for about 70 percent of nitrogen production costs.

As part of the deal that led to CF expanding at Port Neal, Northern Natural Gas agreed to bring in a larger pipeline to serve the heavy industrial site.

CF hired German-based engineering firm of ThyssenKrupp Uhde to design the Port Neal and Donaldsonville plants and perform other duties, including procurement of specialized equipment.

While the construction proceeds, CF is well into the hiring of operators, engineers, millwrights, mechanics, maintenance personnel and other workers to staff the new plant.

DeRoos said 92 of the 100-plus positions have been filled. In August, the first class of new operators graduated, allowing them to begin their training before the new plant comes on line.

The new jobs will start at average salaries of $55,000, and increase to about $85,000 after the workers complete certification.

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