After The Disaster: Communicating With The Public

Q. If you don’t sell ammonium nitrate, does the message change? If so, how?

At least so far, investigators sound pretty sure that it was ammonium nitrate at the West facility that exploded. They still don’t know what (or who) started the fire that triggered the explosion, but they think they know what exploded.

Ammonium nitrate is more likely to explode than most fertilizers or fertilizer ingredients. In fact, I have read that it was a military explosive before it was an agricultural chemical. It may or may not be more dangerous in toto than other fertilizers, but the particular way in which it’s dangerous – it goes boom – is scarier than most. Moreover, ammonium nitrate was Timothy McVeigh’s explosive of choice for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It has a fair amount of stigma attached to it – not as much as dioxin, say, but a lot more than most fertilizers. Stigma arouses dread, and dread exacerbates outrage.

If I ran a retail fertilizer operation that doesn’t stock ammonium nitrate, I wouldn’t stay mum after the West explosion. I’d assume that some of my neighbors are already wondering whether my place could blow up the way the West facility did. I’d tell people, proactively, that I don’t stock ammonium nitrate. And then I’d segue into a thoughtful discussion of the risks posed by my operation.

On May 21, more than a month after the West explosion, Oregon’s Polk County Itemizer-Observer ran a story explaining why a similar explosion wasn’t likely at nearby fertilizer plants or storage facilities. It begins with this anecdote:

The day after a West, Texas, fertilizer plant erupted in a massive explosion in April, Bill Blair walked into Polk County Fire District No. 1 to calm any nerves about the possibility of a similar explosion in Independence…

Blair is the manager at the Simplot Grower Solutions retail unit in downtown Independence. The facility sells dry and liquid fertilizers and crop protection products, none of which contain ammonium nitrate….

“He (Blair) came in at 8 o’clock that next morning. He had stuff diagrammed out from the West incident, kind of showed us what was going on,” Neal Olson, Polk Fire No. 1 training/operations division chief, said. “They don’t have a lot of the stuff that was down there. Their security measures are high. We’ve done walk-throughs; our crews are pretty familiar with their facility.”

To his credit, Blair didn’t just tell local firefighters that he doesn’t stock ammonium nitrate and therefore can’t have a West-like explosion. The story suggests that he also discussed the risks his operation does pose, the precautions he has taken, and what firefighters would need to know in an emergency.

Blair made good use of the teachable moment.

I have mixed feelings about the Polk County Itemizer-Observer story. It does a good job of explaining why what happened in West probably couldn’t happen in Polk County. But it doesn’t go on to say much about whether there are other fertilizer-related risks that its readers should take seriously.

Aside from that, this is the kind of “Could it happen here?” story that local journalists in farm country should have been producing – and that local fertilizer retailers should have been inspiring and sourcing. And still should.

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