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Could a West, Texas explosion happen around here? Anhydrous ammonia common in ND; chance for incident low

The remains of a fertilizer plant burn after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early Thursday. The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on Wednesday, injuring more than 100 people, leveling dozens of homes and damaging other buildings including a school and nursing home, authorities said.

After a fertilizer facility exploded Wednesday in West, Texas, questions have been raised across the nation regarding the safety of such plants and their proximity to neighbors who may not suspect that danger lurks next door.

More than a dozen people have died and many more are recovering from injuries sustained after the massive explosion -- reportedly caused by a fire -- erupted at the West Fertilizer Co. in a town of less than 3,000 near Waco, Texas. The blast registered as a 2.1 earthquake as it leveled homes and caused the evacuation of a nearby nursing home, according to multiple reports.

Initial reports cited the compound anhydrous ammonia -- a pure form of biologically active nitrogen that can be used as fertilizer -- as the likely trigger of the explosion, though Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger on Friday declined to go into specifics of what may have ultimately caused such a powerful blast, stating in an email that the incident is "still under investigation."

In a Forum News Service story published last year, David Roberts, an assistant professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, said nitrogen is the single biggest fertilizer ingredient in North Dakota. With the Peace Garden State's history of agriculture, anhydrous ammonia is not hard to find.

Southwest Grain general manager Delane Thom, however, said Friday that the chances of anything similar to the West blast occurring in Dickinson are basically nonexistent.

"We actually don't store ammonia in Dickinson," Thom said. "Our sites are out in more remote areas. We don't have any anhydrous ammonia storage facilities where there could be a potential problem. We have never experienced any issues related to (the West, Texas, incident) at all."

Thom said there are three anhydrous ammonia storage facilities in Stark County and added that the compound is shipped to Southwest Grain's complex in Dickinson via truck or rail. BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said anhydrous ammonia accounts for about two-tenths of 1 percent of all rail traffic.

"Rail is by far the safest way to move hazardous materials with 99.97 percent of the carloads of hazardous materials successfully reaching their final destination without incident," McBeth said. "Railroads also strongly support efforts to replace TIH (Toxic Inhalation Hazards) materials with less hazardous substitutes and new technologies wherever possible."

In March, a semi truck pulling an anhydrous ammonia trailer was involved in an accident with another semi in foggy conditions near Buchanan, though no ammonia was leaked, according to a story that appeared in the Jamestown Sun.

"The window of opportunity for something to happen like what happened in Texas last week is extremely small," Thom said. "Anhydrous ammonia is an organic compound, is used by many farmers and is a necessary fertilizer for the agriculture industry."

Plans for agribusiness giant CHS Inc. to construct a billion-dollar anhydrous ammonia plant east of Jamestown are in the works, with a final decision on the project expected later this year. If given the green light to operate, the facility would produce more than 2,000 tons of anhydrous ammonia per day.

By contrast, the West Fertilizer plant was listed as having storage for 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, according to DTN/The Progressive Farmer reporter Russ Quinn, who cited data from an EPA website.

"There are facilities across the Midwest that store a lot more than 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia," Quinn said Friday. "Of course, the (West Fertilizer Co.) facility is 50 years old, but we thought it was interesting that there was a middle school and retirement home across the street from it. As far as the industry as a whole, there are a number of steps that fertilizer-related companies, or even retailers, have to go through to build and maintain facilities."

Quinn said experts he spoke with believed that more than just anhydrous ammonia was likely to blame for the West explosion. Just days after the blast, there are still more questions than answers.

"I don't think we know what was in the facility in Texas yet," Thom said. "The bottom line is that, if you handle these compounds correctly, there is no need to worry about something like that happening."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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