The Need For ResponsibleAg

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April 17, 2013, was a day that almost no one in the U.S. fertilizer industry will forget. An accident took place at the West Fertilizer retail facility in West, TX. Soon afterward, we learned that 15 people were killed, more than 160 were injured and more than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Chemical Safety Board were soon on the scene in attempts to determine the cause of the explosion.

In Washington, DC, and around the country, few in the public and particularly the media were willing to wait for the official word on the reason for the blast. Here at The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), media calls, first from Good Morning America and closely followed by The Today Show began around 1:30 a.m. (and have continued to this day). Inquiries from Capitol Hill followed in short order. While we later learned that the retail facility was owned by Adair Grain Co., it was unclear who the retail facility’s ownership was and whether or not they intended to speak to the media or the West community. Given this void, it was our job to serve as the voice of the industry.

Jumping Into Action

Within days, and as the initial flurry of media calls subsided, we began to look forward and consider the future messages we should be using with reporters and Capitol Hill legislators. In short order, we decided to poll the public and determine the extent to which the West Fertilizer accident had damaged the industry’s reputation and further, what actions the industry could take to assure the public that it is safe.

The opinion poll which was conducted two weeks after the accident consisted of online interviews with almost 900 individuals in Washington and key states. Not surprisingly, awareness of the explosion was nearly universal with 93% of respondents indicating that they had read something in the media about the accident. What’s more, the poll found that almost 50% of those polled believed our facilities are currently unsafe. It also found that by a 6:1 ratio, there is support for further regulation of the industry.

Given these findings, it was clear that the fertilizer industry must take steps to re-assure the public about its safety practices if it were to re-capture its reputation. In large part because the poll told us so, we strongly believed that a new initiative aimed at retail safety was in order. In other words, communication about retailers’ compliance with existing regulations was not enough; rather we needed to prove that steps were being taken to keep employees and communities safe.

From this foundation, we joined the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) to develop a code of practice for fertilizer retailers. The code will include third-party inspections so that we will do our best to ensure the public and policymakers that retailers are in fact doing the right thing. While support for the code, which will be called ResponsibleAg, among the industry has been strong, some in the retail community have expressed reservations about its potential impact, particularly on small businesses in our industry. For this reason, I believe that it is necessary to tell readers of CropLife magazine just what the code entails as well as what it doesn’t. The code is aimed at helping retailers comply with existing regulations rather than creating a new set of standards of conduct for the nation’s retailers.

Development of the code has just started and it is gaining support from many retailers who are participating to ensure that it reflects the reality of their operations. I encourage you to stay in touch with both TFI and ARA to best understand how ResponsibleAg is being built and best understand how it can show outsiders our commitment to safety.

Mathers is director, public affairs for The Fertilizer Institute, Washington, DC.

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