Local officials planning for ‘Gorilla’

Local officials planning for 'Gorilla'
While a final decision may be months away, Yankton and other area officials are already touting what the region could offer a Texas-based energy company should it locate a $10 billion oil refinery near Elk Point.

Hyperion Resources CEO Albert Huddleston spoke Thursday, Sept. 20 to 27 state

lawmakers – about one-fourth of the entire Legislature – during a luncheon at Dakota Dunes. And more than 200 people packed the Buffalo Run Winery in Vermillion for a luncheon Friday with a Hyperion official.

State Reps. Charlii Gilson (R-Yankton), Eldon Nygaard (D-Vermillion) and Gary Jerke (R-Tripp), along with Yankton Mayor Curt Bernard, were guests Thursday at the Dakota Valley Business Council's third Legislators Day.

Nygaard also attended Friday's gathering, held at his winery.

While Huddleston didn't provide any major new announcements, the area officials said the face-to-face meetings proved valuable.

"I really like what the company said," Gilson said. "I really like what they plan on doing with the environmental effect, of using a lot of their own by-products from the refinery."

Huddleston didn't ask for state incentives or legislation, Gilson said. At this point, the process has to play itself out, she said.

"As a Legislature, I don't think we can do anything right now," she said. "We can be supportive, but it's (Hyperion's) decision."

While the Dakota Dunes luncheon was geared towards state legislators, Gilson said she felt it was important to bring Bernard as a guest.

"It's just nice to have a Yankton presence," she said, noting the city has a stake in Hyperion's decision.

Should the company choose the Elk Point site, Gilson believes many of the

estimated 1,800-2,000 permanent employees could live in Yankton. In turn, the influx of workers into the region could create jobs in Yankton.

"We have people in Yankton now who are driving to Sioux Falls for employment, and they drive to the Dunes for employment," she said. "We have some job opportunities, plus the housing opportunities. People will choose to live in Yankton as far as I am concerned. Yankton offers a high quality of life."

Bernard was already talking Thursday with Huddleston about the opportunities

that Yankton could provide for the oil refinery and its employees.

Huddleston's presentation was casual, and he seemed to relate well to the one-on-one approach and dealing with a handshake, Bernard said.

"I think it was important to have that face-to-face meeting with him," Bernard said. "When you are a corporation in Texas and you are thinking of moving families and investing huge sums in this place called South Dakota, the people in the corporation want to know how friendly we are and if that welcome mat is out. I think that (face-to-face meeting) might make a difference."

Huddleston told area officials that Hyperion plans to start with 4,500 construction jobs and reach a peak of 10,000 employees during a four-year period, Bernard said. The company then plans to hire 1,800-2,000 permanent employees for an estimated $20-30 an hour.

"I talked to (Huddleston) about the fact that local colleges like USD and Mount Marty offer a great opportunity to essentially help uptrain young folks into the type of positions that they need," Bernard said. "RTEC (Regional Technical Education Center in Yankton) could also provide training. We could create a flow in the workforce. It would be a great opportunity to return families and keep them in the state."

Bernard said he also pitched the Yankton airport as a site for the Hyperion corporate jet hangar and Lewis and Clark Lake as an ideal setting for employees' homes and recreation.

"With RTEC and the colleges and the natural beauty around Yankton, we have a

lot of offerings," the mayor said.

Nygaard said the availability of a qualified workforce came up at both meetings. Hyperion officials said the four-year construction period also provides a window for drawing upon area colleges to build a pool of professional employees, the legislator said.

"A lot of these people are interviewed, hired and trained long before the refinery is totally built," Nygaard said. "We also pointed out there may be programs we can institute at (South Dakota State University of Brookings and the University of South Dakota of Vermillion) and in our vo-techs that would prepare our folks for those jobs. I saw interest on the part of Hyperion in working with these institutions in creating new jobs and training."

The environmental impact, including Hyperion's usage of 10,000 acres north of Elk Point, remained a concern, Jerke said.

"Much has changed since the last oil refinery was built (in the United States) in 1976," Jerke said. "With the technology that we have today, (Huddleston) said Hyperion can be much more environmentally friendly. He is strongly focused on this being a 'green' facility.

"As far as emissions, those answers are coming. I would like to see more on that, but we are in the early phases of permitting," Jerke said.

Hyperion officials responded to those concerns at this week's meetings, Nygaard said.

"They promised that they will meet or exceed all environmental standards on the books in America," Nygaard said. "They also plan a computerized program where pollutants and other data are kept instantly available to computers. You can tap in any time of day on what is going on at the refinery as far as emissions. That's the first time I ever heard anybody say they were suggesting total transparency, in that the public can be involved with the company."

Jerke said he also holds questions on whether the plant will remain in Hyperion hands.

"I wondered if the utility would be sold off. The impression I got is that this would be a family business and it would remain a family business. But when you're private, you can do whatever you want," he said. "You wonder if there is someone else behind (the financing)."

The area officials said the refinery would take the United States on a major step toward energy independence.

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