The West Fertilizer Disaster Fallout Continues

As I write this column, the U.S. government shutdown is entering its second full week. Thus far, the agricultural community hasn’t been impacted too outlandishly by this. However, there are hints that this might change once the shutdown ends, thanks to an event that took place not in early October, but in mid-April.

Last week, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) held a conference call to update the media on the latest regarding the explosion at the Wes Fertilizer plant back on April 17. During the call, Boxer announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was fining the plant’s owners, Adair Grain, $118,300. Among the reasons given for these fines were having inadequate relief valves installed at the plant, possessing inappropriate fire extinguishers at the plant and the fact that the facility didn’t have a hazard communication program/emergency response plan. She added more fines may be forthcoming.

Other interesting details from the Boxer conference call regarding the West Fertilizer plant explosion: The fire that caused the explosion apparently began in the company’s seed room, which backed up to an ammonium nitrate storage bin, where 28 to 34 tons of the 150 tons of chemicals stored at the plant were involved in the blast and the force of the explosion was equal to 20,000 pounds of dynamite.

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Of course, one of the most curious comments came from Boxer herself, regarding why she was holding this conference call in the first place: Her fear that safety inspections of facilities housing large amounts of chemicals are lagging due to the government shutdown.

“I’m stepping in here in the hopes that, as a result of my telling you these things, maybe another explosion could be prevented,” she said. Boxer added she wished chemical plants were inspected more often.

Obviously, the ag industry needs to keep its eyes on any developments on this front. I’m not sure what’s worse at this point – the fact that Senator Boxer seems to be lumping fertilizer and crop protection products into a single category called “chemicals” or the call for more regulatory oversight from a long-standing Senator.

But either way, I’m a bit frightened by what this might mean for ag retailers who handle both kinds of products once 2014 rolls around.

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