The Lingering Aftershocks From West Fertilizer

Everyone’s Problem

Not surprisingly, reaction to the West Fertilizer disaster was swift. The popular press blamed the owner for “trying to hide something” by not filing reports with the proper agencies and being allowed to operate “so close to populated areas.” Others pointed out that the plant carried only $1 million in liability insurance —  insufficient to cover all the damages inflicted upon the surrounding area (although Texas state law allows fertilizer storage facilities to operate without any liability insurance, even when they store hazardous materials).

In Summers’ view, many of these criticisms are unfair. “Some people have made Donald Adair to be a bad guy or industry outlier — someone who purposely stayed off the grid,” he says. “I don’t believe that’s true. You are not dealing with a tin shed type of person here, trying to stay out of sight. West Fertilizer was an active member of the Texas Ag Industries Association, the state trade association for ag retailers.”

From within the ag retail industry, the debate centered more upon AN as opposed to West Fertilizer’s owner. “Is ammonium nitrate’s time as a major nitrogen source over?” asked Mike Wilson, product manager at Wabash Valley Service Co., Browns, IL, just after the disaster occurred. “That will be decided over the next several months. Do we absolutely have to use it to meet our customer’s needs? Absolutely not. Wabash Valley made the decision five years ago not to handle this product in any quantity. Our customers have adjusted and our doors are still open.”

However, other retailers were just as adamant that AN still holds an important place in agriculture. “There is no good substitute for ammonium nitrate, particularly for pastures and hay fields,” says Mark Egan, agronomist for Black Prairie Agriculture, Shiner, TX. “West 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 is unpredictable. Because its 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 okay, but that much sulfur is not needed so it becomes an expensive source. Liquid nitrogen is also problematic in these low input systems because its half urea and one has to be equipped to apply it themselves or hope a custom applicator will do it in a timely manner.”

As for The Asmark Institute’s Summers, his view on this topic has changed dramatically since the West Fertilizer accident. “At first, I was with the people who wanted to do away with AN use in agriculture, but I’ve done a complete 180 on this view,” he says. “Because some fertilizer critics won’t give up after that. These same people will then go about trying to get rid of any products that have nitrate in them. So if we as an industry give up the fight for AN, what comes next?”

Phil Gough, senior vice president for El Dorado Chemical Co., Rockwall, TX, agrees. As he points out, calcium ammonium nitrate is considered “a homogeneous fertilizer mixture,” but has still been manipulated in improvised explosive devices used in Afghanistan. “Urea fertilizer can be manipulated with nitric acid into explosive urea nitrate,” says Gough.

Instead, Summers believes the ag retail industry should embrace efforts to police its own facilities with initiatives such as ResponsibleAg, now being introduced jointly by The Fertilizer Institute and the Agricultural Retailers Association. This would involve having independent parties inspecting facilities that store fertilizer, ultimately awarding them a score on their level of preparedness and helping them to fill in any gaps in their emergency plans.

“As I see it, retailers have two options,” he says. “They can be proactive in ensuring their operations are compliant with the existing rules and regulations, some of which date back to the early 1970s, or the industry can sit still and wait for the government agencies to conclude their reviews of what happened in West, TX, and then enact what they believe will prevent another tragedy from occurring. Everyone — including regulators, legislators and industry — agrees there are already enough regulations, so the most obvious positive course is to ensure that everyone that stores or handles products understands the regulations and works to comply with them. If the agencies see industry proactively working to improve the compliance effort, then they will become partners. ResponsibleAg looks to be the initiative that will effectively help industry improve its compliance effort.”

A Ripple Effect

But this might not be enough to keep new regulations that will directly affect the fertilizer industry from coming into play. Last August, President Barack Obama signed an executive order, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security — to require regulatory agencies to deliver recommendations for increasing rules governing the storage of chemicals and fertilizer. And according to Summers, even an event such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia (where crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol was accidently released into the water supply of 300,000 residents) could threaten the market.

“Regulators cannot differentiate between a coal mining company and a retailer with a product held in a containment structure, so I believe it is inevitable that agribusiness will be affected by this issue,” he says. “This could include potential new regulations despite existing federal rules for the containment of pesticides and state-specific rules already in place for liquid fertilizer by most states.”

In fact, one such bill has already been proposed by West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller. This would change the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compen­sation and Liability Act to cover “pollutants or contaminants” and increase the clean-up liability cap from $2 million to $4 million. Under the proposed bill’s definition, this would include fertilizer and crop protection products.

“The fertilizer industry is under attack to keep the products we currently use,” concludes Summers. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to do a better job with our products, because one plant damaged the reputation of the entire fertilizer industry as a brand across the country.”

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One comment on “The Lingering Aftershocks From West Fertilizer

  1. Thank you for mentioning the green hay. This is the first I have read about it. Anyone who is familiar with growing, harvesting, and storing hay is familiar with the fire danger posed by wet hay. I wonder why the federal investigators never mentioned it. Are they really that stupid?

    It was nice to read about a Homeland Security type admitting that the limit for ammonium nitrate fertilizer is one ton, not the 400 pounds (which has been widely attributed to a person familiar with Homeland Security operations – or just simply asserted without attribution). The next step (which neither your reporter nor nearly every other reporter involved with this story accomplished) is to check on the web for the actual regulation. The one-ton limit only applies if the ammonium nitrate fertilizer is packaged and ready to ship. If it isn’t, there is NO limit. Homeland Security was not advised of the stored ammonium nitrate because Homeland Security did not want to know about it, and wrote regulations to prevent this reporting. In short, West Fertilizer did all the required government reporting. The government simply failed to do its part.

    One item I have not found addressed in any coverage (official or press) of the explosion is the source of the carbon crystals in the fireball: hot black carbon crystals in the exploding fireball made it glow orange and then red, as it cooled. Without the carbon crystals, the fireball would have been a pale blue. What was the source of the carbon in the explosion: what carbonaceous fuel had been mixed with the ammonium nitrate before it exploded? Had someone poured kerosene on the fertilizer in the hope of producing an explosion? Had West Fertilizer blended in some other carbon-containing fuel? Flour perhaps?

    If the official ATF non-criminal-activity explanation (the pure ammonium nitrate melted and then detonated because it was in the liquid state because of a fire started by the electrical system or the golf cart) were correct, the fireball would have been pale blue, not glowing orange and red, and the smoke plume would have been brown, not sooty grey.

    What was the source of the carbon?

    Whom is the ATF trying not to accuse?

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