The Ammonium Nitrate Question

It’s now been two weeks since the explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in West, TX, and investigators are still trying to determine what caused the horrific blast that killed 14 people, injured more than 200 and devastated parts of this town. I covered much of this in last week’s column, so there’s not much new to add right now.

However, plenty of readers have sent me e-mails regarding the event. With the exception of a lone e-mail, the rest of these letters agreed with my assessment based upon the facts that West Fertilizer’s owner, Adair Grain, could (and should) have been more thorough in its safety planning considering the amount of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) it had at the facility. “Yes, they definitely sound like they were in violation of filing improper paperwork, which might have made a difference in how first responders handled the situation,” said most e-mails.

In fact, one e-mail mentioned the example of a 2009 fire at an El Dorado Chemical Co. plant in Bryan, TX. “Because this facility had an emergency plan that mentioned having ammonium nitrate, first responders to this blaze made the decision to evacuate the surrounding area rather than stay and fight the fire,” wrote the e-mail writer.

Yet, the most interesting e-mails I received were ones calling for an end to storing ammonium nitrate at the nation’s more than 6,000 fertilizer facilities. “I feel that our industry needs to take a serious look at getting out of the 34-0-0 business,” wrote one emailer. “It has too many wrong uses today.”

Now in truth, ammonium nitrate isn’t as widespread as it used to be. According to statistics from The Fertilizer Institute, only 2% of the nitrogen fertilizer sold annually in the U.S. is ammonium nitrate, down from 5% just 15 years ago. Still, say agriculture experts, it is popular with grower-customers in parts of the country such as Central Texas with alkaline soils, which can react negatively with other forms of nitrogen fertilizer.

Although I wasn’t covering the business at the time, I imagine this same argument regarding ammonium nitrate took place following the tragedy of Oklahoma City in the mid-1990s. It will be interesting to see what impact the recent events in West, TX, might now have on this ongoing debate.

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One comment on “The Ammonium Nitrate Question

  1. The explosion at West was sad especially since everyone in that town was connected one way or another to those who died. Even so these arguments for banning ammonium nitrate are weak. Weak because it is impossible to simply ban everything that is dangerous. What do we ban next? Grain bins, anhydrous ammonia, tractors, or perhaps silos. That ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer used in explosive is likewise a weak argument. Does anyone really believe that the terrorists of the world won't quickly switch to a substitute, and that terrorists are price sensitive? There is no good substitute in agriculture for ammonium nitrate. Particularly for pastures and hayfields. West, TX is in the middle of the blacklands. Once cotton country it is now mostly grass with some corn, milo and cotton. It is and has always been low input country because the rain pattern are unpredictable, expect being able to expect drouth conditions two out of three years. Because it's productivity is unpredictable spending money on nitrogen has to be conservative and opportunistic. Urea is not a great option because of volatilization concerns. Stabilized urea is no bargain, ammonium sulfate is ok but that much sulfur is not needed so it become an expensive source. Liquid nitrogen is also problematic in these low input systems because it's half urea and one has to be equipped to apply it himself or hope a custom applicator will do his farm in a timely manner. I am an agronomist out of Shiner, TX. Like West, Shiner is a small Czech community in the blacklands whose agriculture is primarily grass based. Because there is a literal kinship between our communities I can say that West's pain is deeply felt here. Yet I am willing to say that ammonium nitrate is an important input that has no good alternative and should not be banned. Mark Egan Black Prairie Agriculture

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