West Fertilizer Disaster: Employing The Lessons Learned

Arguably, nobody in agriculture fielded more calls from retailers and the media in the wake of the West Fertilizer disaster than Allen Summers, president of the Asmark Institute. That’s what happens when you’ve seen virtually everything that can be seen in ag retail, and channel that knowledge and experience toward helping retailers understand and manage the myriad regulations and best practices that help protect our communities and businesses.

After the initial tidal wave of calls began to subside (“I was on the phone non-stop for days … I was even getting calls in the evening at home,” says Summers), he shared some of his thoughts on the whole experience.

Q. What’s been your take on the coverage of the disaster?
Allen Summers: It’s been interesting that ammonium nitrate is not taking a hit so much as the entire fertilizer industry. A preception has developed of the loose network of regulatory requirements that make it appear that there was very little oversight of the plant. And the other thing that’s confusing the issue is the notion that there are outliers in the industry, businesses operating off the grid so to speak, and that West was an outlier. When you ask someone, “who do you consider an outlier?” they will tell you that it is somebody that is not a member of the national or state association. They will say that it’s some “tin shed” trying to get around the rules. That does not describe the West Fertilizer facility — it was a member of the state association. And while they did not have a spotless record of compliance, it was a farmer that bought the facility in 2004 and he had some catching up to do.

Q. Are most retailers as connected as they should be with local emergency response people?
AS: A high percentage of the retail plants have some type of communication with the fire department. After the explosion, Crop Production Services in Summerdale, AL, actually called the fire department and went over things with them right away — they do training every year anyway, but they wanted to bring the emergency responders in for a better understanding now that the West, TX, tragedy occurred. TV cameras followed him in, and they did a great job.

Larger organizations with people assigned to work with local emergency response usually have a form that requires emergency plans be signed off by the fire department. Some smaller independents do not have anyone help them to do that. Hopefully this raised the awareness for facilities to preplan with their responses to a greater degree, even if they have a fire prevention plan in place.

Q. What are retailers asking for help with?
AS: People have been calling for additional copies of their emergency plans to post in trucks, take home with them and to give to fire departments. There is definitely a renewed consciousness occurring. We’re getting calls to review proper ammonium nitrate storage, am I in a tier or not … mostly, no one wants to be caught not doing what they are supposed to be doing because they didn’t know. Especially true, they don’t want to be in the position of thinking they did the right thing only to be wrong.

A lot of the calls were precipitated by someone who stored ammonium nitrate and the sequence of events scared them … they did not think it was an act of terror, and it made no sense that it would just explode. We had many conversations about what was thought to have happened there, that it might be possible for an explosion to occur based on circumstances at the facility, and that diesel fuel and a match were not required to cause the explosion — despite what most in the ag industry believe. It alarmed enough people that they came out of the woodwork to ask questions.

Q. What do you see as the most important aspects of facility safety and security?
AS: The number one action that helps security is conscientiousness from the facility about keeping doors locked and gates closed, valves locked, product not in an open doorway. If there is an overall awareness of security, if it is engrained in the culture, the facility will be safer and more secure. Since the West, TX, explosion, we as an industry will be asked to demonstrate that we can handle agricultural inputs, some of which can be dangerous, responsibly.

As for the actual facility, proper lighting makes the biggest impact on improving site security. Cameras will gain more acceptance with the price point dropping a lot over the past decade, but you need to maintain them, and image quality can limit their usefulness — it will tell you that something happened, but not provide you with a clear image of the perpetrator.

What we don’t want are unintended negative consequences. Signage, for example, is required for buildings containing restricted-use pesticides. National Fire Prevention Association signage is commonly used to warn fire departments of what hazards they could encounter within buildings. We do an exercise with retailers where we ask them to put on a terrorist hat, stand in the middle of their facility and tell us just by looking around what is being stored at the facility. It’s an eye-opening exercise — it is amazing to them how much information they can get just by looking at the signage, and how the laws require us to effectively telegraph to an intruder what products we stock at the facility. The rules conflict with good security practices.

Q. What could happen as far as regulation?
AS: I think fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate will be added to the risk management plan list of regulated substances. It was never really on the list initially because companies that handle explosives grade material argued that it was already a highly regulated product as an explosive. There are a lot of agencies currently evaluating what went wrong in the communication and the public is expecting actions to prevent this from happening again. Lack of harmonization — the “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” — keeps popping up as a problem, so we’ll see how things sort out. For the first time that I can ever remember, industry is inspired to come together to prevent this from happening again.

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One comment on “West Fertilizer Disaster: Employing The Lessons Learned

  1. Every county in the nation should have a County Emergency Manager. Sometimes it will be the fire chief, sometimes not. But they are plugged into every aspect of emergency response. They are supposed to have disaster mitigation plans as part of their work with FEMA. It would be a good idea for ag suppliers/wholesalers/retailers to contact these emergency managers and make sure they are aware of any ammonium nitrate storage and factor it into their emergency response planning. Maybe if there is another facility owner out there who has "some catching up to do" it won't result in the deaths of first responders and leveling of a school, businesses and homes.

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