With mainstream media outlets jumping all over anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate fertilizer as possible causes of the tragic West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion, fertilizer industry leadership is urging patience and open-mindedness as the investigation proceeds.
“We have no official statement at the moment,” says Kevin Runkle director of regulatory affairs, Illinois Fertilizer And Chemical Association (IFCA). “Like CropLife America, the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) and The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), we’re still waiting to see what the investigators say. The fire has finally quelled a little bit and they are just now able to get into the facility and start investigating.”
According to Runkle, at present there are just too many variables at play in a comingled facility such as the West Fertilizer Co. facility, operated by Adair Grain Inc. and located in West, TX, a rural community about 20 miles north of Waco.
“I believe the local volunteer fire department was responding to a fire at the facility two hours prior to the explosion, and it looks like that fire got out of control and an explosion occurred due to that fire,” he says. “It looks like this was a grain terminal and ag retail facility rolled into one, so it could have been many different things that caused the explosion.
What is known about the facility so far is this: a 2006 EPA inspection report resulted in the company receiving a $2,300 fine for not having a risk management plan in place that met federal standards. A separate report highlights EPA documents submitted by the company that estimate the worst-possible scenario of an anhydrous ammonia release from its tanks as “a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.”
Additionally, WacoTrib.com is reporting that in February there was a fire at the plant that resulted in the evacuation of nearby West Intermediate School.
Again, Runkle points out the cause of the explosion has not yet officially been found.
“The media reports all mention anhydrous ammonia being at that facility, and that the emergency responders had concerns about that product, which they should because it is a hazardous material, but right now we need to wait until the investigators find out what caused the explosion because there are just too many variables to make any type of assessment.”
In the meantime, Runkle and IFCA continue to stress the implementation of a full suite of emergency/disaster preparedness plans for all ag retail facilities.
“Anything an ag retail facility can do to proactively address any risks or issues associated with preventing a fire, that’s one of the best things they can do and there are tools out there to help them do that,” says Runkle. “In Illinois, we have a fire prevention plan for ag retailers to use, to go through and assess the potential hazards and dangers associated with a fire occurring, or how to prevent a fire from occurring.
“There are other proactive steps that facilities can take: security measures, fire prevention, hazard review and compliance assessment plans, weekly inspections of the facility and equipment and good housekeeping programs that show the public that they are being proactive in preventing something like this from happening again. These tools are readily available. The Asmark Institute has them available. We at IFCA have them available that we developed for our members here in Illinois that they can use to go in and assess any kinds of hazards or dangers associated with a fire occurring at their facility and to reduce those risks.”
Also important for ag retailers is getting out in front of any possible backlash from local media, citizens or activist groups while the investigation plays out in national headlines.
“We need to assure the public that we’re being proactive to prevent something like this from happening,” he advises. “In terms of communication, probably the best thing to do is keep your neighbors informed ahead of time and work closely with them in the event that there is an emergency. From what we can tell, they are doing the best they can down in Texas. The emergency responders evacuated people and got them out of there and did what they were supposed to do. “
In an email sent this morning to its members, Kathy Mathers, TFI vice president of public affairs, says the organization will refrain from commenting “while we have no specific information on the incident.”
UPDATED AT 2:50 p.m.:
The following information has been released by TFI and the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA):