Hard Lessons Learned In Fertilizer Plant Tragedy

Hard Lessons Learned In Fertilizer Plant Tragedy

Mary Hartney, FFAA 2013


What happened? That’s what Florida’s fertilizer industry members wondered as the news spread of the death and destruction caused when West Fertilizer Co., a fertilizer blend plant, caught fire and exploded the evening of April 17.

Safety has been front and center in the fertilizer industry’s mindset in the days and weeks since. A criminal investigation is ongoing as I write this. While the cause of the fire is undetermined at this time, investigators have determined it was stored ammonium nitrate that exploded, killing 14 people and dealing the rural community of West, TX, a devastating and heart-breaking blow.

In the days immediately following the West accident, two national associations — The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) and the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) — worked around the clock to provide information and facts to industry, federal investigators, regulators, elected leaders, and state agchem associations like FFAA.
Fact sheets about anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate (two products stored onsite at West) were widely distributed and posted on TFI’s and ARA’s websites. Here in Florida, FFAA members answered media inquiries, gave interviews, and met with their local emergency responders to review operations and facility safety plans and procedures.

Education, Safety, And Sense

While safety has always been important to our industry, the West tragedy calls for special efforts in the months ahead to focus on safety training and emergency response planning exercises. We also need to educate people on why ammonium nitrate (AN) is a valuable fertilizer. Growers use AN because of its high nitrogen content and agronomic properties. It has long been the Florida citrus growers’ preferred nitrogen fertilizer. If it can be transported, handled, and stored safely — and past experience in Florida shows it can be — then it ought to remain in a grower’s toolbox. If changes are warranted, TFI, ARA, FFAA, and others will be involved on behalf of the industry to see that all prudent measures are taken.

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West Fertilizer Co. wasn’t a member of either TFI or ARA. It was a former retail facility a farmer bought so area growers wouldn’t have to go all the way to Waco for farm supplies. Many news articles focused on West’s regulatory compliance history. To address this issue, TFI and ARA teamed up with the non-profit Asmark Institute to promote a free tool to support compliance with existing federal regulations and associated best management practices within the agricultural retail industry. Asmark’s online Compliance Assessment tool for agricultural retail facilities helps control risk and supports the continual improvement of a retail dealer’s regulatory compliance effort.

TFI’s and ARA’s joint announcement of this tool noted: “We greatly appreciate the Asmark Institute’s willingness to make this tool available free of charge to fertilizer retailers, and we encourage them to join with producers, importers, wholesalers, and state fertilizer associations to help increase industry awareness of this and other means of regulatory compliance assistance. It is through the use of tools like this that we are taking steps to redouble our commitment to safety.”

The Compliance Assessment Tool is available at Asmark.org/ComplianceAssessmentTool.

From Support Comes Strength

In the months ahead, we will keep the community of West, TX, in our thoughts and prayers as they rebuild their homes and lives. On May 1, the City Council of West, TX, took action and designated The West, Texas Disaster Relief Efforts Fund as the recommended recipient for all charitable donations made for the relief efforts. The fund is housed at the Waco Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity. All donations will go directly to those impacted by the tragedy, as The Waco Foundation is donating in-kind services and financial resources to the West Texas Fund. Go to WacoFoundation.org and click on the “Give Today” button in the upper right corner of the screen to help. Checks can be made payable to: Waco Foundation – West, Texas Disaster Relief Efforts Fund – 1105 Wooded Acres, Suite 701,
Waco, TX 76710.

I gave and I hope you will too. We will take the lessons learned from West to heart. FFAA and its members are committed to safety and we will do all we can to keep our facilities, employees, families, and communities safe and our Florida farmers growing.