What is in this article?:
- Texas explosion causing unfounded fears of fertilizer transportation, storage and use
- More likely culprit
• Anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate are the two substances that have been investigated as possible causes of the April 17 explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant.
• Anhydrous ammonia is not used in Alabama, while the use of ammonium nitrate is becoming increasingly rare.
An expert says the likelihood of a fertilizer-related incident similar to the fiery West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people and injured some 200 others is extremely remote in Alabama.
That’s because the two products that have been linked to the blast are either not used in Alabama or are extremely rare.
“I don’t see it happening here in Alabama,” says Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils. “We use neither anhydrous ammonia nor ammonium nitrate to any significant degree anymore.”
Anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate are the two substances that have been investigated as possible causes of the April 17 explosion of the West Fertilizer Plant.
Anhydrous ammonia is not used in Alabama, while the use of ammonium nitrate is becoming increasingly rare, says Mitchell, who has spent his career advising farmers about how to make the most optimal uses of conventional fertilizers as well as fertilizer substitutes, such as poultry litter.
Shortly after the explosion, investigators initially suspected stored anhydrous ammonia, a gas that is one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen, as the possible cause of the explosion.
Anhydrous ammonia is typically combined with different compounds — nitric acid, sulfuric acid and, in some cases, atmospheric carbon dioxide — to produce different types of fertilizer.
“When I initially heard anhydrous ammonia being the possible cause, I was surprised and wondered how this could have happened because ammonia tanks typically aren’t linked with fiery explosions,” he says.
“After some close reading, I discovered that under very specific conditions of high temperature and with the right kind of catalyst, something like this is conceivable and could explain the West, Texas, explosion.”
However, anhydrous ammonia-related emergencies are more commonly associated with transportation accidents, such as train derailments or highway incidents involving tanker trucks, in which toxic amounts of ammonia gas are released into the air, sometimes forcing the evacuation of entire sections of a city or town.
Anhydrous ammonia is typically injected into the soil as a gas as a nitrogen source in grain production.
“It’s used widely in the Midwest as well as in central Texas, but I don’t know of anyone in Alabama who uses it,” Mitchell says.