Fertilizer Handlers Focus on Safety in Light of Texas Explosion

5/4/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Even before the tragic fertilizer-plant explosion on April 17 in West, Texas, the Pennsylvania fertilizer company Timac AGRO USA had decided it wasn’t going to handle ammonium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia.

“It eliminates a lot of safety concerns. We just have stayed away from any of those ammonium nitrate products,” said Jeff Schneck, manager of the company’s Reading, Pa., facility, which handles mostly urea-based fertilizers.

The tragic events in Texas have many asking: Can it happen here?

Pennsylvania is home to a number of fertilizer blending and storage facilities.

Lancaster-based Kirby Agri Inc. is believed to have the region’s largest number of fertilizer blending and storage facilities, with four facilities in Lancaster County alone.

On its website, the company lists ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia as products it sells. But how much it stores and sells is unknown and calls to the company were not returned by presstime.

Schneck said that along with not selling explosive products in the first place, Timac AGRO USA is constantly training employees on product safety and has even brought in the local fire company for tours of the facility. The company sells more than 20,000 tons of fertilizer a year, he said.

Pennsylvania consumes roughly 5,000 short tons of ammonium nitrate a year, according to Kathy Mathers, media relations coordinator with The Fertilizer Institute in Washington, D.C. That number is based on in-state sales of the product recorded in 2011. A short ton is equal to 2,000 pounds, so that’s roughly 10 million pounds of ammonium nitrate sold each year.

It might seem like a big number, but Mathers said it’s a relatively small piece of the nation’s overall ammonium nitrate consumption, which was 753,000 short tons in 2011.

Urea sales, on the other hand, are much more prevalent in the state, with 38,000 short tons of the product sold in 2011 compared with 6.1 million short tons nationwide.

Most nitrogen production, she said, tends to be near a natural source, with most plants in the Midwest and South.

While the cause of the April 17 explosion that killed 15 people and injured at least 160 is still unknown, media reports have said the West, Texas, facility had been storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, both of which can be used in nitrogen fertilizer products, but also as explosives.

Ammonium nitrate was the explosive material used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Mathers said the institute hasn’t issued any safety recommendations as of yet and won’t do so until a cause of the Texas explosion has been determined.

“At this point, it’s hard to tell folks what to do because we really don’t know what happened down there,” Mathers said. “We’re holding off making recommendations until we learn what happened. From the retail side, we are certainly open to lessons that could be learned.”

Davis Hill, senior Extension associate of agricultural safety and health at Penn State, said that when it comes to farms, steps can be taken to ensure safe storage of chemicals, whether it be fertilizer or pesticides.

“What we try to encourage farmers to do is store all of their products away from where they store oils and fluids,” Hill said. “Sometimes, we’ll see fertilizer stored where machinery is parked and next to farm shops. A tractor could leak oil and could cause a reaction.”

Many fruit growers in Adams County have built storage facilities specifically for fertilizer and pesticide storage, according to Tara Baugher, Penn State tree fruit educator.

Todd Gulick, who grows 17 acres of fruit just north of Easton, Pa., is getting government money for a new pesticide storage facility on his farm.

“It’s a safer containment for the pesticides that I’ll be using. Just more ease and handling for the mixing to go out and do the spraying,” Gulick said.

He worked with his county’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to secure funding for the facility.

Pete Zakanycz, district conservationist with the NRCS Lehigh County field office, said these storage facilities are built with special reinforced concrete to contain spills.

“It’s designed basically to hold chemicals with the type of pour we put in. So if there is any type of safety issue, it can be contained,” Zakanycz said.

Dick Bleiler, a grain producer in New Tripoli, Pa., had a 25-foot-long, 60-foot-wide, 16-foot-high fertilizer and pesticide storage facility built for $50,000 last summer.

Seventy percent of the project’s cost was covered through an Environmental Quality Incentive Program or EQIP grant.

Bleiler estimates he uses the equivalent of three tractor-trailer loads of nitrogen a year on his farm. He doesn’t believe any of that is explosive material, although he can’t say for sure.

He admits that convenience was a big reason he had the facility built, but safety was also a consideration.

“There is a sign on the door indicating there are chemicals inside. There is obviously certain conveniences. But the containment, getting it all together in a contained area if there was a spill, it’s contained right there. That was a big consideration,” he said.

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