Six years and Tuscola residents still waiting on Cronus fertilizer plant

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Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

The proposed Cronus site on the north side of the highway on March 21, 2016.

In 2014, in the midst of a gubernatorial election, the construction of a $1.4 billion fertilizer plant in Tuscola was announced with much fanfare and the promise of state subsidies.

Six years later, no piece of dirt has been overturned since former Gov. Quinn poked a shovel into an open field in a symbolic groundbreaking.

The company behind the proposal, Cronus Chemicals Inc. has periodically announced new construction dates, new business partners, new leadership and new cost estimates that still leaves the 250-acres of open field farmland undeveloped.

Now Tuscola officials say the outbreak of coronavirus will add to the long delays.

“The timeline has been set back because of the virus,” said Daniel Kleiss, the mayor of Tuscola. “Right now they’re still planning to move forward with it.”

In 2014, Cronus CEO Erzin Atac, who is based in Switzerland, said the construction timeline was around 33 months. The plant was expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 175 permanent jobs for local residents when it opened in 2017. 

In addition, the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District expected to sell 6.3 million gallons of wastewater per day to the plant for $1 per 1,000 gallons in addition to a $3 million “Capital Recovery Fee”, according to the original contract.

A year later, Cronus blamed its delay on the lack of commitments needed from the owners of nine properties along Route 36.

CU-CitizenAccess reached out to Peter Gray, the most recent spokesperson for Cronus Chemicals for an update on the project, but he did not respond messages left at his voicemail.  

But Brian Moody, who represents the Tuscola Economic Development Group said “there is still a strong interest in this project moving forward” and hoped to hear some new developments in the near future, according to a Sanitary District board meeting memo.

However, Rick Manner, executive director of the Urbana and Champaign Sanitary District, said that he is uncertain about the project’s timeline.

“In regards to (the plant) being built, I really don’t know enough,” Manner said. “I don’t know.”

Changing plans

The Cronus Chemicals project has had at least eight “groundbreaking” dates set since the October 2014 announcement. The price of the plant has fluctuated from an original $1.4 billion estimate to $1.9 billion. The latest estimate is $1.7 billion.

A screenshot of the fertilizer plant website in 2014.

The company’s current website – the only place where information is consistently updated on the project – says the project’s groundbreaking is supposed to take place in the second half of 2020. 

A screenshot of the fertilizer plant website on July 21, 2020.

Kleiss said because the project has been going on for so long, contractors had to keep renewing expired EPA permits. 

The website currently says the project will employ between 1,500 and 2,000 persons at the height of construction and up to 200 full-time equivalent operators at commencement of operations, which is projected to be in the first half of 2024.

Since May 2019, Cronus had not secured any financing, according to documents from the Urbana-Champaign Sanitation District. However, the the contract was extended on May 7, 2019. 

Rick Manner said that the original contract was always intended to be a 20-year commitment and the contract terms are still very favorable to the district, so the recommendation is to assist Cronus in securing financing by extending the commitment to sell the effluent, according to the district minutes from a May 7, 2019 meeting.

The Cronus contract extension was moved by Trustee Ladell Myrick, seconded by Trustee Jenny Putman to keep the contract commitment to Cronus through at least July 1, 2020. Cronus has not been brought up at any board meeting since, according to the Sanitary District’s minutes.

Kayleigh Rahn, a Tuscola native and former editor of The Tuscola Journal, has sat through numerous meetings and press conferences about the project from 2014 to 2019.

Her first week at the paper, then-Gov. Pat Quinn came to Tuscola one month before he lost his re-election campaign to speak about Cronus Chemicals. Almost six years after Quinn made the announcement, the construction zone is still being farmed. 

“I never saw any red flags about the project, everything was clearly mapped out,” Rahn said. “The only thing that was a little unclear was the money and how the state and senate package was specifically created for Cronus.”

Rahn said local property owners in the south of the construction zone are still standing by, having waited for years. 

“I know people who have planned to move, but they can’t because they don’t know if their home will be bulldozed in a few months or a few years,” Rahn said. “The consistent rally cry has been ‘next construction season.’”

Changing contractors and business partners

In March of 2016, Cronus Chemicals announced that they had picked contractors to oversee the project’s construction. The contractors were Italy-based Tecnimont and Houston-based KBR Inc, and both construction firms co-signed an agreement to build for $1.5 billion. 

After almost 2 years of no movement on the project and multiple changes to cost, Cronus announced that they would be working with a new contractor. They announced the new contractor was Thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions, a German construction conglomerate. 

Other changes in the leadership of the project came in January of 2020 when it was announced that Titan Chemicals Holding, a subsidiary of Keryman-Avunduk investment company, which is based out of Switzerland, became the primary shareholder on the plant.

“When you’re talking about the magnitude of the project, it’s in the billions,” Kleiss said. “I think it takes a long time to get the financing completed and the number of financers onboard with that. I’m hoping that very soon we get some sort of indication from them. I’m hoping in a couple months we’ll hear something additional from them.”

Timeline of contractors:

  • March 2016: Tecnimont and KBR, Inc.
  • August 2017: Thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions

Timeline of leadership changes:

  • January 2020: Keryman-Avunduk Investment Company AG of Zug, Switzerland becomes primary investor.

Timeline of construction:

Oct. 29, 2014

Cronus Chemical announced site selection and construction of a new $1.4 billion fertilizer plant west of Tuscola on Wednesday Oct. 29, 2014. The plant was expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 175 permanent jobs.

Cronus CEO Erzin Atac said he hoped to break ground on the project in spring 2015. The construction timeline was estimated at 33 months. 

April 27, 2015

Crops were being planted for the last time on the 240-acre Tuscola farm before the Cronus fertilizer plant would be built. 

The plant was expected to start in spring 2016.

May 20, 2015

Cronus needed commitments from the owners of nine properties along the route to start building the $1.5 billion fertilizer plants. Officials said if signed papers don’t arrive soon, the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District will resort to using its powers of eminent domain. 

March 4, 2016

Construction work confirmed in Tuscola for Cronus Fertilizers plant with a new contracting deal with Tecnimont and KBR, Inc. Both global contracting and construction firms signed a joint venture agreement on the $1.5 billion project. Building was expected to start in 2016.

June 10, 2016

Cronus announced on its website that the estimated cost is now $1.9 billion, more than 30 percent above the original estimate, and that the plant will not be finished until the last quarter of 2019 — at least 30 months later than the initial estimate.

March 26, 2017

Cronus Chemicals will start losing part of its $40 million in state tax incentives if its proposed $1.9 billion ammonia fertilizer plant is not operating by July 2, according to tax credit agreements.

A review of company filings with the state of Illinois shows the project must be “in service” within 24 months of July 2, 2015. According to the documents, “in service” means “the state or condition of readiness and availability for specifically assigned functions.”

June 11, 2017

One month from the 1,000-day anniversary of Cronus’ announcement, and not a single piece of dirt was moved. The project’s estimated cost was still $1.9 billion

Aug. 23, 2017

Cronus spokesman Peter Gray said construction on the plant would likely begin in the second half of 2018 and last 37 months, putting the opening in the second half of 2021.

On this day, the company announced it has agreed to terms with a new contractor for the project, now estimated to cost $1.6 billion after earlier estimates were in the $1.4-$1.5 billion range. Thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions, a German multinational conglomerate, will serve as the engineering, procurement and construction contractor for the project.

Oct. 1, 2018

Construction was now on track to begin in the first half of next year, according to the Cronus spokesman.

The project now also has an updated, and a longer, construction timeline of 45 months. Depending on when next year the work starts, that would push completion to 2022 or 2023 with contractor Thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions.

Jan. 13, 2020 

A Swiss-based investment company has become the majority shareholder in the proposed Cronus fertilizer plant in Douglas County.

Cronus Fertilizers announced on this day that Titan Chemicals Holding, an entity controlled by the Keryman-Avunduk Investment Company AG of Zug, Switzerland, is the chief investor in the project.

The most recent estimated cost was $1.7 billion.

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