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Old lignite pioneer in North Dakota Coal Country being torn down

Great River Energy employees, from left, Rich Garman, Skip Oberg and Wade Aanderud are company co-managers of the deconstruction of the Stanton Station plant, the first commercial lignite plant built in Coal Country and the first to go. Submitted by Great River Energy 1 / 3
The ash silo at the Great River Energy Stanton Station was tipped over a few months ago as deconstruction of the plant continues at a safe and steady pace. Once tripped, structures are stripped down. The company says this process is easier and faster than a top down wrecking ball approach. Submitted photo by Great River Energy2 / 3
Materials from the Great River Energy Stanton Station plant are set to the side until they can be transported for smelting, as part of the deconstruction of Coal Country’s first commercial scale lignite power plant. Submitted photo by Great River Energy3 / 3

STANTON, N.D. — It took hundreds of workers nearly three years to build a coal-fired plant near Stanton. A small crew out of Houston will make it disappear in half the time.

When it was built in the mid-1960s, it was made tough enough to last for the ages. But today, the old UPA Stanton Station — the first commercial scale lignite plant in Coal Country — is slowly disappearing from alongside the Missouri River. It's going, going, gone with new environmental currents that made continued operation financially untenable.

"We wish it were still running, but this is part of the cycle of a power plant," said Wade Aanderud, one of three employees maintained by plant owner Great River Energy to co-manage deconstruction.

The 200-megawatt plant went dark on Feb. 25, 2017, not long after workers celebrated 50 years of operation. And just like some families that tidy up ahead of the house cleaner, the remaining plant crew worked three more months getting it ready for demolition.

Aanderud said that included even bringing in a fire hose to wash down the fly ash precipitator, a unit that filtered fine coal dust from emissions.

"The contractor commented on how clean it was of residues, oils, greases, better than any plant they'd ever worked on," said Rich Garman, GRE co-manager. "We left it in pristine condition. It was a matter of pride; we didn't want to leave a dirty plant."

One by one, the plant's familiar structures are tripped and stripped.

The 80-foot-high fly ash silo went over in April, the fly ash precipitator went down in May and the sulfur dioxide scrubber house is going this month. The buildings are tripped over onto their sides after they're stripped from ground up 20 to 40 feet and bared to the beams. Beams on one side of the structure are weakened by torch or explosive and literally pulled over with cable.

There isn't a wrecking ball or a crane in sight.

"We've learned a lot. The tripping and stripping is quicker and easier than working from the top down," said Garman.

Deconstruction amounts to one huge recycle and salvage project, according to Garman.

"Nearly 98 percent of the material is sellable and reusable," he said.

That includes structural steel, non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum, copper tubing and brass and the concrete and brick crushed to backfill subgrade basements. A few pumps, motors and the plant's turbines were salvaged and resold, but most material is sorted off and shipped to a smelter plant.

GSD Construction, of Houston, is the demolition contractor and Garman said its bid price — well within the $12 million budgeted for the project — is augmented by the salvage value. The company was one of 13 bidders and started prepping for deconstruction in November.

The 110-foot-high boiler houses that contained the steam pressure for the turbine will be tripped with explosives sometime this fall by a third-party explosives expert on site for about a week.

"Will you hear something? Perhaps, but it will not be spectacular. If you weren't paying attention and you were a mile downstream, you probably wouldn't even hear it," Garman said.

The plant's main emission stack, which at 270 feet is higher than the state Capitol, will go down in the same time frame.

GSD has a specialized crew of 19 workers on site — purposely small because of the inherent danger in having too many people moving about when large structures are being lowered from vertical to horizontal. Each work day starts with a safety meeting.

When a structure is ready for tripping, work comes to a halt and project leaders painstakingly plan through the details of getting it to the ground before work starts again, according to Garman.

It'll take the crew six months all the coming winter and into spring to strip the massive boiler and turbine structures down to nothing.

"There's a lot of steel in those buildings," Garman said.

When early summer comes around again, the once-bustling plant site of roughly 150 acres will be a flat lot, ready to be contoured and seeded to native grass species. GRE spokesman Lyndon Anderson said the company has not yet made any decision about what it will do with the property, though the plant's adjacent electric substation will remain intact and live. The intake tunnel on the Missouri River that supplied the plant's steam water also will remain.

Aanderud said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the water intake permit, said removal would cause more disruption to the riverbank than leaving it in place.

GRE has for decades maintained a nearby public boat ramp and parking area as a popular way for boaters to access the Missouri River. It even accommodated boat traffic through the plant driveways when coal trains blocked regular access. Anderson said the ramp facilities will be donated to the city of Stanton, along with a smaller plant outbuilding that the community will move and repurpose as a fire station.

The city of Center has the plant's old flagpole.

"Little bits of the plant will still exist," Garman said.

And for many in Coal Country, so will the memories of an old lignite pioneer.

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