• Following World War II, fertilizer use (nitrogen, as well as other fertilizers) expanded rapidly in the United States, but leveled off in the early 1980s after reaching a peak of 23.7 million tons in 1981. In fiscal year 2008, a total of 54.9 million tons were used in the United States.
• Depending on the type of cropping system, typically 1.0 to 1.5 pounds of fertilizer nutrients are needed to produce a bushel of soybeans, 1.5 to 2 pounds for a bushel of corn and 2.5 to 3.5 pounds for a bushel of wheat.
• The United States is the world’s third largest nitrogen producer and currently has the capacity to produce 12.5 million material tons of ammonia, which is used as a fertilizer, as a building block for other nitrogen products and for industrial uses.
• The largest consuming countries are generally those with the larger populations and those with the best diets. They are: China, India, the United States and Brazil.
• For nitrogen, the United States both imports and exports, though ends up a significant net importer. As the largest importer of nitrogen in the world, most of the nitrogen imported into the United States is in the form of anhydrous ammonia and urea.
Information from the Fertilizer Institute.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the least amount of ammonia which is found to be irritating to the eyes, nose and throat of the most sensitive individuals is 50 parts per million.
Without protective equipment, maximum airborne concentration below, which it is believed that nearly all individuals could be exposed for up to 30 minutes without experiencing or developing life-threatening health effects, is 500 ppm.
Breathing 700 to 1,700 ppm results in coughing, bronchospasm and chest pain along with severe eye irritation and tearing. At levels greater than 5,000 ppm, ammonia causes chemical bronchitis, fluid accumulation in the lungs, chemical burns of the skin and is potentially fatal.
Three weeks ago, a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, not all that different from plants in many, small, rural communities, exploded. It killed 14 people, leveled much of the tiny town and rocked the nation.
As the investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives grinds on, many uncertainties linger.
“There’s a lot of speculation out there,” said Kathy Mathers, vice-president of public affairs for the Washington, D.,C.,-based Fertilizer Institute. “That’s what’s really frustrating.”
The nagging question as the ATF sifts through the rubble is what exactly happened the evening of April 17 at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company. After the ATF makes its determination regarding criminal actions, the Chemical Safety Board will launch its probe and look into exactly what caused the explosion.
This disaster, or any other like it, involves an alphabet soup of local, state and federal emergency and environmental agencies. Even Homeland Security enters the equation.
Then there is the big question being asked by emergency agencies, both locally and around the county – could this take place in our backyards? The answer may be “yes” and “no.”
Planning for the worst
“It could happen here,” said Amy Miller, Barton County emergency management director. Miller heads up the Barton County Local Emergency Planning Committee which oversees disaster preparedness.
The Superfund Amended Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) Title III established requirements for state and local governments to do emergency planning. “This is why we have local committees,” she said.
Although a federal mandate, it is up to each state how to establish these committees function and to whom they report. In Kansas, counties were designated as the planning districts.
Prior to SARA, emergency planners only looked at weather, fire and traffic disasters, Miller said. As for hazardous materials, “they never looked at them as a separate group of hazards that could cause an emergency. It seems like a no-brainer.”
Now, these groups are required to have at least one table-top disaster drill each year that involves hazardous materials.
There are requirements for businesses that use or store hazardous materials as well. Certain chemicals and certain amounts of these chemicals must be reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment annually in what is called a Tier II report. These companies must also provide a copy of these reports to local emergency committees, fire departments and emergency services.
There were 110 Tier II reports filed in Barton County in 2011 and 120 in 2012, Miller said. These numbers are normal for the county.
However, due to the influence of the oil industry, many of these reports are linked to the oil patch. In 2011, 84 were oil related, and in 2012, the number was 87.
This points out the diversity of hazards present, she said. There is everything from ammonia to oil storage tanks on a farmer’s lease that require the filing of reports.
In case of a serious incident, Miller must contact the Kansas Adjutant General Department Division of Emergency Management. The business or entity that is the source of the accident must contact the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Great Bend is as prepared as it can be, said Great Bend Fire Chief Mike Napolitano. “We train constantly” with drills and table-top exercises.
Fire departments in the county work closely with the LEPC with this training.
Furthermore, Great Bend has established mutual-aid agreements with local, county and regional departments. “If we need help, we can get it right away.”
They refer to the reports filed by companies that store hazardous materials. So, when emergency personnel arrive on the scene, they are better able to safely mitigate the disaster before calling summoning investigators.
For instance, water being applied to some substances such as ammonium nitrate, can trigger a reaction and an explosion. Ammonium nitrate is what likely exploded at West, Texas.
However, “it’s a challenge,” Napolitano said. “There are general guidelines we use, but every incident is different.”
“We just pray that never happens here,” he said.
But, “there’s stuff everywhere,” he said of hazardous chemicals. “Residential garages can have just as hazardous materials. Trucks are going down the road all the time.”
Despite all the preparation, first responders may not know what they are getting into when they are called. “It could happen to anybody.”
“We do a lot on the prevention side,” Napolitano said. Firefighters do walkthroughs of new businesses commercial construction, and the department does annual inspections of commercial properties.
Even so, “you are never 100 percent prepared,” he said.
Things can be even more dicey for smaller, volunteer fire departments, like the one that served West. “As volunteers, you just don’t have as much time to devote to reading all the materials and for the training,” said Ellinwood Fire Chief Chris Komarek.
Even with preparation, firefighters don’t know the specific circumstances until they arrive at a fire. “By that time, it may be too late,” he said.
“Volunteer or paid, you are not going to know everything that is in that building,” Napolitano said.
Great Bend Fire Department Battalion Chief Rick Robinson summed it up like this: “Inherently, it’s a dangerous job. But, when the call comes in with a structure fire, you have to respond, regardless of the hazards.”
Closer to home
Although the West, Texas, plant was probably larger than his Great Bend facility, it was similar, said Dennis Neeland of Great Bend Co-op.
But, there is a big difference.
Like the Texas plant, the local co-op has anhydrous ammonia, and dry and liquid fertilizer. But, as a dry fertilizer, the Texas site had ammonium nitrate, a dry fertilizer, a compound that is very flammable, caustic and dangerous, hence, very heavily regulated, Neeland said.
Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh used ammonium nitrate to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in April of 1995. It also caused the deadliest industrial accident in American history, the explosion of a ship at the port of Texas City in 1947, which killed more than 500 people.
“We haven’t handled that for years,” Neeland said of ammonium nitrate. “I can’t think of anyone in Kansas that does.”
It’s dangerous, and not worth the risk or the red tape. Instead, the Great Bend Co-op uses urea (a component of urine, which is safe and readily available) as a source of nitrogen.
His operation is one of those that must file the Tier II reports. He also must share his Material Safety Data Sheets (which contain all the chemicals used on the premises, as well as safety and emergency information) with emergency personnel.
In theory, he said, all first responders would have access to this information. So, when they arrive at a scene, they know what to expect.
“I feel safe with our fertilizer plan,” he said.
A necessity of life
There is a bigger picture for rural America, Neeland said. “These fertilizers are a basic building block for growing food products. We have to have it.”
According to the Fertilizer Institute, nitrogen is a natural element, making up 80 percent of the air humans breath.
“It is essential,” the Fertilizer Institute’s Mathers said. “Crops can’t grow without it and people can’t live without it.”
Nitrogen fertilizer, in the form of anhydrous ammonia, is produced in a chemical process that combines nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas. Known as the Haber Bosch process, this method is 100 years old.
Ammonia is one of the basic building blocks of nitrogen fertilizer products. It is an essential element for plant, animal and human life, Mathers said.
It is found in water, soil and air, and is a source of much needed nitrogen for plants and animals. Most of the ammonia in the environment comes from the natural breakdown of manure, dead plants and animals.
Man-made sources of ammonia include fertilizers, power plants, mobile sources and other manufacturing emissions. In certain crops, ammonia is the preferred fertilizer source because it contains 82 percent nitrogen and can be the most economical.
Ammonia is a colorless, pungent, gas that is lighter than air. At minus 28 degrees, it becomes a liquid.
Anhydrous ammonia is classified as a non-flammable gas but will burn with certain vapor concentrations and with strong ignition. Fire hazard increases when oil or other combustible materials are present.
Fertilizer retailers take exceptional care in handling ammonia with specialized equipment that is inspected and certified, personnel that are extensively trained, and specialized personal protective equipment for employees, Mathers said. Mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act, these retailers must have in place risk-management that outline their response in the event of a spill.
The Texas plant that blew up was a retail site and not a production facility, Mathers said. Such sites are common in rural, agricultural communities.
Despite all the unknowns surrounding the Texas incident, Mathers said it was likely ammonium nitrate that exploded.
Use of this in nitrogen fertilizer is not common in the United States, she said. Used primarily for hay, pasture land, fruits and vegetables, it constitutes about 2 percent (or about 750 tons annually) of the total nitrogen fertilizer applied by American farmers.
By comparison, there is about 6.1 million tons of urea-based fertilizer, like that stored at Neeland’s facility, used.
Fertilizer is regulated at both the federal and state levels. Federal agencies of jurisdiction include the Department of Homeland Security, the EPA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation. At the state level, fertilizers are regulated by departments of agriculture.
Facilities storing anhydrous ammonia in quantities of 10,000 pounds or more are required to have EPA-approved plans. Each facility covered under the act is required to conduct an off-site consequence analysis for a worst-case accident, a hazard assessment and an accident prevention program.
Facilities storing ammonium nitrate in quantities of 400 pounds or more are regulated under the Department of Homeland Security Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association code 490 sets standards for the storage of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is also regulated by the Department of Transportation.
Chain of command
As far as the state’s emergency response to an event like the one in West, Texas, once the local responders asked for state assistance, Kansas Division of Emergency Management (under the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office) would begin coordinating the state’s resources to assist, said KAG spokesperson Sharon Watson. The State Fire Marshal’s Regional Response Teams would likely get involved in an investigative capacity, and it would be handled as a hazmat emergency.
It is the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that tracks all the Tier II forms filed in the state in a data base under the Right-to-Know Program, said KDHE spokesperson Miranda Steele. This lists all the regulated hazardous materials in Kansas and their amounts.
In the event of a disaster and after the local authorities request help, Steele said KDHE would marshal several of its bureaus, such as environmental health, public health and waste management. The agency’s reaction is based on the state Emergency Response Plan.
After assessing the scene, KDHE personnel would see how to best handle remediation and clean-up efforts. This could involve air and groundwater contamination.
Also, should the entity involved not met reporting requirements, an investigation would ensue, Steele said. This could lead to regulatory action.
Between KDEM, KDHE and the EPA, there would be a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But, “were all really good partners,” Steele said.
“Our main role would be making sure they received the resources needed to fight the fire and get people to safety as we do in any disaster where the locals need assistance,” Watson said.