Explosives Next Door Unnerve Towns With Fertilizer PlantsJack Kaskey and Mark Drajem
Employees at McKee Lumber Co. in Corsicana, Texas, were discussing last month’s deadly blast at a fertilizer plant 50 miles away one recent morning when talk turned to their neighbor: El Dorado Chemical Co.
El Dorado sells fertilizer about 300 feet from the lumber yard, including ammonium nitrate. That is the chemical suspected in the explosion April 17 at a similar facility in West, Texas, killing 14 and leaving a crater 93 feet wide by 10 feet deep (28 meters by 3 meters).
“For people near fertilizer plants, this has just brought an awareness,” said Tim Young, the Corsicana lumber yard’s manager. “If it catches fire, I’m gone,” he said, swinging a finger in the direction he’d flee.
The disaster in West has revived a debate about whether fertilizer distributorships should be permitted in populated areas. No federal regulations prevent them from being near cities, schools or hospitals. State and local regulations vary widely.
The wooden building that houses the El Dorado facility abuts the red brick streets of downtown Corsicana, a city of 23,000 less than an hour’s drive south of Dallas. The entire central business district, including shops, restaurants, churches, city and county buildings and schools, lies within a mile of the plant -- which is authorized to house 18 times as much of the chemical as the facility that leveled West.
“If something did happen, it would be big,” Joshua Boyd, co-owner of Muddy Motives ATV on East 3rd Street, said from behind the counter. “A lot of people don’t know that.”
While ammonium nitrate makes up just 2 percent of nitrogen fertilizer used in the U.S., it’s most widely used on pasture land and for citrus crops in states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas, according to the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials. In Texas alone, 115 facilities are registered to store or sell ammonium nitrate, according to Ben Jones, associate director of the Office of the Texas State Chemist.
“Anywhere there are crops grown, you are going to have a feed, seed and fertilizer dealer,” Stephen McMurry, president of the association of plant officials, said in an interview. “In any farming community, they are going to have one fairly close.”
Across the nation, more than 2,400 businesses stock ammonium nitrate, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“The problem of dangerous chemicals housed right near where people live is very pervasive,” Paul Orum, an independent consultant who has published reports on chemical safety for the Center for American Progress in Washington, said in an interview. “It needs a systemic, long-term solution.”
Investigators are still probing the cause of the fire and blast in West, which destroyed an apartment block, school and nursing home. A 15th death is being investigated as potentially related. Last week authorities announced that they had opened a criminal probe of the disaster.
The independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board says damage caused by the blast at the West plant, owned by Adair Grain Inc., is the worst the agency has ever investigated.
The Adair plant was approved to store 270 tons of ammonium nitrate. El Dorado is authorized to hold 5,000 tons, according to state health department records. Inside the warehouse, white pearls of ammonium nitrate spill from a row of 10-foot high wooden bins labeled “Nitrate 34-0-0.”
Ammonium nitrate should be isolated from population centers and stored in a fireproof building, rather than being held in a wooden building in a town center, said Chris Damas, a chemist and a fertilizer analyst with BCMI Research, an independent investment and consulting company with headquarters in Barrie, Ontario.
“If it were detonated in an intense fire, 4,500 tons of ammonium nitrate would probably blow downtown Corsicana off the face of the Earth,” Damas said by phone.
The highly explosive chemical is responsible for some of the deadliest industrial accidents and terrorist attacks. Timothy McVeigh used it in 1995 to destroy Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. An explosion of a ship carrying it in 1947 in Texas City, Texas, killed 581 and ranks as the worst U.S. industrial accident.
The explosion in West caused more than $100 million in property damage and registered 2.1 magnitude on earthquake monitors. It has also spotlighted gaps in government oversight of chemical safety. The administration of President Barack Obama has spent four years working to develop rules to track sales of ammonium nitrate. Republicans in Congress thwarted legislation that would have prodded chemical companies to shift to safer products. And the rules that do exist have been criticized by government watchdogs as inadequate or poorly implemented.
Orum, the consultant, said the Environmental Protection Agency could add ammonium nitrate to its various risk-management lists, including one that would mandate local emergency committees plan for a possible explosion. Tax breaks could be used to induce facilities to move away from towns; local zoning boards can keep development from encroaching on plants, he said.
In Corsicana, the El Dorado fertilizer warehouse has been in its current location since at least the 1970s, predating establishment of the city’s zoning ordinance in 1981, said City Manager Connie Standridge. In the event of an emergency, everyone in town could be phoned with an evacuation message in less than a minute, Mayor Chuck McClanahan said.
“Our fire department is on top of it and understands the dangers that are there,” Standridge said. “I believe we have done as much as possible to protect our citizens without violating any property rights that company might have from being there so long.”
Corsicana’s fertilizer dealer is owned by LSB Industries Inc., based in Oklahoma City. It distributes ammonium nitrate at 17 El Dorado dealers in the South, including 15 in Texas, making it the state’s leading retailer of the potentially explosive fertilizer. Ten of LSB’s facilities in Texas are authorized to hold 5,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and five can store as much as 500 tons in inventory, according to state records.
Agrium Inc., the largest U.S. farm-products retailer, is exiting the business of selling ammonium nitrate because of the risk, said Richard Downey, a spokesman. Only two of the company’s 700 farm centers still sell ammonium nitrate, “and they will soon be out of it entirely,” he said.
Ammonium nitrate is the cheapest form of nitrogen, typically mixed into irrigation water with other nutrients, said Damas, the consultant. It is particularly popular with cotton and citrus growers, he said.
Corporate oversight makes LSB facilities safer than independent operations such as the distributor in West, Barry H. Golsen, LSB president and chief operating officer said on a May 6 conference call.
“If there was industry oversight that basically came in and said, ’We’re going to make sure that you’re in compliance with all applicable regulations,’ it would probably have minimal impact on us, since we already comply with all applicable regulations,” Golsen said on the call.
LSB’s plants and retailers have experienced fires and explosions in recent years.
In May 2012, a blast at an LSB plant that makes nitric acid, an ingredient in ammonium nitrate, destroyed the factory in El Dorado, Arkansas, and damaged a second plant. In November, an LSB ammonia plant was damaged in Cherokee, Alabama, after a pipe ruptured. No injuries were reported in either incident.
LSB’s El Dorado retailer in Bryan, Texas, caught fire in July 2009, prompting evacuations for 80,000 people in Bryan and nearby College Station, according to a report in The Eagle, a local newspaper. Not everyone was aware of the evacuation order because local officials neglected to activate the Emergency Alert System, which interrupts radio and television broadcasts.
Firefighters, aware of the ammonium nitrate inside the wooden building, kept clear and let the fire burn. More than 50 people sought medical attention, according to the Houston Chronicle. LSB rebuilt the structure using concrete.
Fred Buonocore, a spokesman for LSB with The Equity Group in New York, didn't respond to a written request for comment on the safety of LSB’s dealerships in populated areas, including Corsicana, or the previous fires and explosions at its plants.
Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan said he’ll examine whether the local El Dorado warehouse should be replaced with concrete, as in Bryan. If a fire started there, he said the incident commander probably would have firefighters set stationary hoses on the blaze and evacuate everyone within at least half a mile.
McMullan said his department of 58 emergency responders spread across four fire stations will review its procedures in light of the fertilizer explosion in West.
“We’ll re-look at everything we do from planning to training to communication,” he said in an interview at his office.
Corsicana Fire Marshall James Palos said there has never been a fire call from the El Dorado warehouse during his 24 years on the job.
“Part of it is prevention,” Palos said, noting that fire officials inspect every business annually.
El Dorado reaches its ammonium nitrate capacity only a few days each year, usually at the height of planting season, he said. Some growers in the region farm thousands of acres and may buy 50 tons of nitrogen fertilizer in a day, Palos said.
Joyce Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Closet Resale, said local officials need to do a better job of informing the community that their lives could be at risk from the fertilizer seller two blocks away from her store.
“If we have the potential for an explosion, let’s put plans in place,” Cooper said, seated behind a desk in the second hand shop. “A wise man learns from the mistakes of others and that’s what people need to do.”