By JOHN O'CONNELL
Officials in the fertilizer industry have emphasized a track record of safety, their detailed planning for emergencies and the intensive safety regulations they face in the wake of a horrific fertilizer plant explosion near Waco, Texas.
Authorities say the April 17 blast at the independent supplier West Fertilizer Co., in West, Texas, killed as many as 15 people, injuring at least 160 others and destroying a dozen surrounding homes. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but the plant was known to store large quantities of anhydrous ammonia, a colorless, pungent gas that's classified as nonflammable but will burn at high vapor concentration and with a strong ignition source.
Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs with the Fertilizer Institute, said her members will await information about the accident's cause in order to evaluate their own operations, but she stressed they maintain a "culture of safety and product stewardship."
"What appears to have happened in Waco is anomalous," Mathers said. "I've been in the business for 23 years and never seen anything close to this magnitude."
Mathers said her organization is a member of a program that has trained emergency personnel in Texas and 26 other states on how to respond to accidents involving anhydrous ammonia, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizer.
Fertilizer businesses are scrutinized by a network of regulation, with federal oversight by the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation.
Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, special requirements apply to businesses handling specified reportable quantities of any of 366 chemicals.
Regulated businesses must file so-called Tier II reports, outlining inventories of their hazardous materials. In Idaho, the state's Bureau of Homeland Security collected 977 Tier II reports in 2012, said agency spokesman Robert Feeley. He said the agency gives copies to local fire departments, hazardous materials teams, state police, the EPA and county-level Local Emergency Planning Committees, comprising a host of emergency responders.
Facilities storing more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia are required to have an EPA-approved risk management plan under the Clean Air Act outlining accident prevention methods, an accident assessment of the worst-case scenario for surrounding areas and a response plan, including if a catastrophic event would necessitate mutual aid agreements among responding agencies.
Mathers said the plans are free to file with EPA, but fines are severe if audits find that the plans are inadequate. For fertilizer retailers, her organization offers an online tool at www.tfi.org that models individual business inventories and circumstances to provide recommendations for risk management plans.
Di Jones, who chairs the Power County, Idaho, Local Emergency Planning Committee, works closely with the J.R. Simplot Don Plant near Pocatello, Idaho. Simplot is scheduled to present to her committee Nov. 21 on readiness for a potential accident involving an ammonia release, and Jones said local emergency responders have conducted drills in the past with Simplot. The fertilizer manufacturer has its own hazardous materials team to respond to accidents, but the Pocatello Hazmat unit would be dispatched for anything major.
In Soda Springs, Idaho, an Agrium plant converts phosphate ore into phosphoric acid to blend with ammonia imported in rail cars, yielding a granular fertilizer.
Agrium spokesman John Tippets said his plant conducted a training drill with its Local Emergency Response Committee last year and routinely participates in the committee's meetings. In the event of an accident at Agrium, emergency responders have cooperative agreements in place, and Tippets said employees undergo regular safety training. He said Agrium has also maintained a "star facility" rating for safety.
John Massey, manager of operations compliance for the Agrium affiliate Crop Production Services in Spokane, Wash., extends an annual invitation to local emergency responders to visit his facilities.
"They become familiar with our facilities so if something did happen, they would know what to expect," Massey said. "We run an annual emergency exercise. We try to involve local emergency responders wherever we can in that exercise."
Fertilizer businesses must also require employees to wear protective gear and must maintain concrete dikes surrounding tanks to capture any leakage. Tanks and facilities are inspected and DOT requires a hazardous materials license endorsement for drivers hauling hazardous fertilizers.
Special regulations by DOT, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Fire Protection Association also apply to ammonium nitrate in quantities above 400 pounds.