LINCOLN — Cellphone video of a violent explosion at a fertilizer facility in Texas had barely hit television screens when Ray Steil's phone started ringing.
The 58-year-old Sioux City, Iowa, consultant advises companies and communities on how to avoid such tragedies, and managers and mayors on the phone line wanted answers.
Can this happen in our town?
The answer is an obvious yes, following the bomb-like explosion in West, Texas, in which at least 14 people were killed and more than 200 were injured. At least a few people remained unaccounted for.
The tragedy has prompted renewed questions about whether federal and state oversight of ammonium nitrate is adequate, and has prompted those in the fertilizer industry to wonder how a normally safe product turned parts of a small Texas town into rubble.
The Texas fertilizer business that blew up is similar to dozens across Nebraska and Iowa that sell bulk fertilizer to farmers and ranchers.
This particular facility produced anhydrous ammonia, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen that farmers inject into the soil as a crop nutrient. It also stored up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, Bloomberg News reported.
Ammonium nitrate is a grassland fertilizer that was the main ingredient in a homegrown terrorist's bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
It was also involved in a 1994 blast at a Terra Industries fertilizer plant south of Sioux City that killed four maintenance workers, injured 18 other workers and caused $375 million in property damage.
Agencies as varied as state fire marshals' offices to the federal Environmental Protection Agency deploy inspectors to ensure the fertilizer is stored in safe and secure locations. More and more safeguards have been adopted since the Murrah bombing, and there is a pending federal law to help ensure that the product, which has been linked to roadside bombs in Afghanistan, isn't sold for terrorism.
But, so far, answers to the presumed industrial accident in Texas are few. Fertilizer and safety officials are perplexed about what combination of events might have turned a normally safe fertilizer into a deadly fireball that registered a magnitude 2.1 on the earthquake scale.
“We have a major black eye here. Under normal circumstances, can this happen at a location? The answer is 'no,'” said Steil, whose Regulatory Management and Consulting company works with 60 fertilizer companies in seven states to comply with federal laws.
“There had to be something else in that building that caused the explosion.”
Some sort of human error, and not terrorism, is suspected.
It was a new type of site for such an explosion, said Steil, who has been in the business more than four decades and did safety work several years ago at the plant in West.
Previous fatal accidents involving ammonium nitrate have occurred at factories or during transportation, not at a warehouse. The most infamous might be a 1947 ship explosion at Texas City, Texas, that killed 581 people and injured 3,500.
Nebraska has 292 wholesalers that sell fertilizer, including 31 that list ammonium nitrate as one of their products. Iowa had 14 outlets for ammonium nitrate in 2009, though officials think that number has dwindled to fewer than a dozen.
Ammonium nitrate, a dry fertilizer used on grassland, is more common in the South.
It can become explosive under a combination of conditions: It must be sensitized by a hydrocarbon such as diesel fuel, confined in a box or truck, then triggered by another explosion. In the Texas blast, that could have been an exploding tank of propane.
Iowa is among about 10 states that have passed laws requiring identification to buy the fertilizer. The sale is recorded and kept for two years. That is on top of federal regulations that require more fire safety steps in storage buildings, storage that is separate from other chemicals, and tracking of sales.
“People just didn't want to mess with it,” said Neal Vaughn, the fertilizer administrator at the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
The federal Department of Homeland Security also regulates outlets that store more than 400 pounds.
The Texas tragedy is prompting a number of safety groups to call for stricter regulation of facilities that store large quantities of hazardous chemicals.
Alice Licht of the Nebraska Agri-Business Association, a trade group of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals dealers, said her members work hard to keep local fire departments apprised of what products are stored in their facilities. Annual hazardous material training is conducted, she said.
“Industrial accidents happen,” Licht said, “but this is not an everyday occurrence.”
A handful of state and federal agencies have some hand in monitoring ammonium nitrate, though Steil said the industry is largely self-regulated — regulation that he says has produced a record of safety.
State fire marshals are responsible for enforcing the special fire-safety steps required to store the fertilizer, Steil said, and he is aware of at least one Nebraska company that had a brand-new storage facility shut down because of lack of safeguards.
In Iowa, ammonium nitrate outlets are inspected once a year, according to Vaughn, the fertilizer administrator.
Nebraska State Fire Marshal Jim Heine said was unaware if his office did any inspections for ammonium nitrate, but that it does do safety checks for anhydrous ammonia tanks. Facilities that sell anhydrous ammonia are inspected once every three to five years, he said.
This gaseous fertilizer, common in the Corn Belt, is usually not explosive but can be deadly if inhaled.
The EPA had fined the West fertilizer company in 2006 for filing one that was inadequate.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates shipments of the product and had also fined the West facility.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also inspects fertilizer facilities, but on a sporadic basis, mostly based on complaints or accidents. OSHA focuses mainly on high-risk industries, which would not include fertilizer facilities, according to Scott Allen of the EPA's regional office in Chicago.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture also inspects fertilizer plants, but only to test the fertilizer's nutrient content.
Zoning laws also come into play.
The Texas facility was close to a nursing home, an apartment complex and homes. In Nebraska and Iowa, older facilities might be near homes, but newer facilities face zoning restrictions that would place them farther away, officials said.
West Point, Neb., City Administrator Tom Goulette said his community requires that all ag chemical and fertilizer facilities be located in industrial parks, although one facility on the south end of West Point is near homes.
“It's been there a number of years,” Goulette said. “When you're in an ag community like this, you're aware of the hazards.”
One West Point company that sells ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, Kaup Seed and Fertilizer, hosted a training session last year on dealing with ag chemicals. More than 300 firefighters, emergency responders and fertilizer workers from across the state attended.
“We try to be really proactive in the industry and try to educate,” said Jeff Wilmes, who owns the 25-employee company. “I get concerned every time there's an incident involving fertilizer.”
He said he sells ammonium nitrate only to people he knows. He once rejected a sale to someone who said he wanted to conduct an experiment on types of fertilizers.
“That just raised red flags with me,” Wilmes said.
Most of those killed in Texas were firefighters.
Steil, the safety consultant, said there's a right way and a wrong way to fight such fires. Ammonium nitrate, he said, shouldn't explode even when it's burning, so some other kind of explosion likely triggered the huge blast there.
But he said a federal committee that included representatives of the fertilizer industry and government have drawn up safety rules that, if followed, would make chances of another accident like the one in Texas “extremely slim.”
Steil was front and center at one of the worst accidents involving ammonium nitrate.
He was among the first people on the scene of the deadly 1994 accident at the Terra plant in Port Neal, Iowa, that produced the fertilizer.
The accident occurred during maintenance operations. A 10-month investigation by the EPA concluded that “a lack of safe operating procedures” caused the explosion, which was even bigger than the one in Texas, registering a magnitude 3.7.
Following last week's blast, Steil was in full investigative mode — reading news stories, scanning the Internet for bulletins, surveying the scene via computer, looking for clues as to what went wrong.
When ammonium nitrate is handled and stored properly, it is harmless, he said, and it's a great fertilizer. If it's handled carelessly, and mixed with the wrong chemicals and an explosive force, it isn't.
“It comes back to the human factor,” Steil said. “Someone did something stupid down there.”
Ammonium Nitrate Explosions
|Date||Place||Country||What||Name||Tons exploded||People killed||People Injured|
|July 26, 1921||Knurów||Poland||Train||30||19|
|September 21, 1921||Oppau||Germany||Plant||BASF||450||561||1,952|
|March 1, 1924||Nixon, N.J.||USA||Plant||Nixon Nitration Works||18||100|
|August 5, 1940||Miramas||France||Plant||240|
|April 29, 1942||Tessenderlo||Belgium||Plant||15||189||900|
|April 16, 1947||Texas City, Texas||USA||Ship||Grandcamp||2,300||581||3,500|
|April 28, 1947||Brest||France||Ship||Ocean Liberty||3,000||26||5,000|
|August 7, 1959||Rosenburg, Ore.||USA||Truck||Pacific Powder Co.||4.5||14||125|
|August 30, 1972||Taroom, Queensland||Australia||Truck||18.5||3|
|November 29, 1988||Kansas City, Mo.||USA||Truck||highway construction site||29||23|
|August 2, 1994||Porgera Valley||Papua New Guinea||Mine||Porgera Gold Mine||11|
|December 13, 1994||Port Neal, Iowa||USA||Plant||Terra International Inc.||5,700||4||18|
|September 21, 2001||Toulouse||France||Plant||AZF||300||30||2,500|
|March 4, 2004||Barracas||Spain||Truck||25||2||5|
|April 22, 2004||Ryongchôn||North Korea||Train||at least 160||1,300|
|May 24, 2004||Mihâilesti, Buzau County||Romania||Truck||20||18||13|
|September 10, 2007||Monclova, Coahuila||Mexico||Truck||22||37||150|
|April 17, 2013||West, Texas||USA||Plant||West Fertilizer Co.||at least 14||200|
World-Herald staff writer Matt Wynn and chief librarian Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com