By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Until the tragic explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, which killed 14 people and injured more than 200 others, many Americans rarely considered how close they may live to the nearest stockpiles of ammonium nitrate.
An ongoing DTN investigation into fertilizer storage and regulatory issues has so far obtained information from 17 states. The results show there are many situations and locations comparable to and exceeding that involving West Fertilizer Co.
Texas investigators determined that of the 150 tons of AN stored at the small facility, approximately 28 to 34 tons ignited in a populated area.
The explosion that followed the fire measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. It destroyed a school across the street, and severely damaged apartment buildings, a nursing home and other nearby buildings.
To learn more about the prevalence of ammonium nitrate storage in the U.S., and the area around those storage facilities, DTN filed information requests for fertilizer storage data from Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Wisconsin and Georgia. Information from other states is still pending. DTN also cross-referenced information from the states with the latest satellite imagery Google Earth makes publicly accessible.
According to DTN's analysis, many of the AN stockpiles are found in relatively small cities and towns. For example, two sites owned by the same company along a single highway in Illinois reported an average daily amount of 45 to 454 tons at each site, in a town of more than 70,000 residents. DTN found that those stockpiles were two to three miles from housing subdivisions.
Acquiring information on where ammonium nitrate is stored isn't easy. Few reporting rules cross state lines. In some instances, information on fertilizer and chemical storage are closely held by state homeland security offices. Because of fear of terrorists, many regulatory information officers hesitate to provide details without complicated information request procedures.
While appropriately troublesome for terrorists, and reporters, these laws also make it difficult for residents or emergency officials to know what's in the neighborhood. Some states required individuals to submit lists of specific facilities, including the address, to find out whether or not they stored AN. Other states required reporters, at least, to make an individual email request for each of scores of potential sites, just to learn whether they stored ammonium nitrate.
There is no central database that allows average citizens to request information about facilities near their homes. In the few states that have online databases, there was no way to simply search for ammonium nitrate -- instead requiring hours to view every report of various products to find which fertilizers are stored there.
When states do respond to a request for information, many hand over large computer spreadsheets that can contain thousands of locations that would require a citizen to dig through to find a particular facility. Even then, information can be less than helpful. Some states allowed fertilizer retailers to provide non-specific descriptions of what they store: DTN found many retailers in various states simply declare storage of "fertilizer," with no specifics as to the type or amounts
Understanding the security concerns surrounding what is made public about fertilizer facilities, DTN wished to be careful and responsible with its research. (To see more about what DTN decided to share and how, see DTN Editor-in-Chief Greg Horstmeier's blog at http://bit.ly/…)
FOCUS ON AMMONIUM NITRATE
Research shows solid ammonium nitrate is more commonly stored in the South and Southeast, while some Midwestern states report the chemical stored in smaller amounts. Many states report no stockpiles. This reflects the regional, and sometimes use-specific, demand for dry ammonium nitrate. The nitrogen source is especially popular in pasture, range and similar uses where there is no tillage to work the product into the soil. Ammonium nitrate is known as being more stable and longer lasting on the soil surface than dry urea.
DTN's research and analysis shows Tennessee has 86 solid ammonium nitrate stockpile locations, the largest number compared to the other states that shared data.
Out of those 86 Tennessee sites, 24 reported having an average daily amount of AN stored between 499 tons and 4,999 tons -- about 18 to 147 times the amount of AN that ignited in West, Texas.
According to 2012 data, Texas communities that ranged in population from as few as 88 to as high as 600,000 residents reported an average daily total of 24,854 tons stored, or an average of 289 tons per site. However, those sites have potential to hold more: They reported having a total maximum daily amount of 85,714 tons of storage onsite for AN at any one time.
Meanwhile, Texas also has a considerable number of sites. Not including the West Fertilizer Co. facility, there are 69 sites in Texas that store solid ammonium nitrate. They have the potential to hold a total maximum daily amount between 55,960 tons and 309,604 tons, or an average of 799 tons to 4,423 tons of AN per facility. According to 2012 data from the state of Texas, AN facilities reported they actually held a total maximum average daily amount of 779,580 tons.
Although there has been much concern about large amounts of ammonium nitrate stored in the heart of West, Texas, a look at Texas' records found that most of the state's large stockpiles are in larger industrial areas, not in the more residential setting as was the case with West.
ILLINOIS HAS THE MOST OF MIDWEST STATES
Compared to the Midwest and Plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, Illinois has the most solid ammonium nitrate stockpiles with 29 sites.
According to 2012 data from Illinois compiled by DTN, those 29 locations reported total average daily amounts of between 216 tons and 2,214 tons, or about 7.5 tons to 76 tons of AN per site.
DTN has determined after a public records request made to Kansas that the state has 20 sites that store a solid form of AN in 2011-2012. Three sites in particular draw attention.
There is a total average daily quantity of 612 tons in three communities with populations of between 200 and 3,200 residents. They could hold more: Those three locations reported total maximum daily quantities of 1,021 tons of AN, including one location that sits in the heart of a small town.
Indiana's records to DTN showed stockpiles of solid AN at 12 locations, although just three reported having pure, solid AN while the remainder report mixes of AN and other dry fertilizers.
Compared to individual stockpiles in states like Tennessee and Texas that total in the thousands of tons, Indiana data from 2012 shows that most stockpiles are relatively small in the Hoosier state. However, three Indiana sites that each store an average daily quantity of 454 tons of pure, solid AN sit in towns with populations under 45,000 residents.
A complete search of Nebraska's online database by DTN turned up just a handful of locations that store solid AN. That includes five stockpiles at limestone and quarry companies -- all reported they had relatively small stockpiles stored in underground mines. There are two other stockpiles reported in the state maintained by a chemical company. In all, there was a maximum daily average of 125 tons of AN stored in Nebraska in 2012, with a maximum daily amount of 305 tons reported.
Ohio required DTN to provide a list of specific sites that may or may not store AN. From the list of 98 fertilizer retailers provided to the state, none reported storing solid AN onsite. This doesn't mean there are no AN stockpiles in the state: Other information requests across the country turned up ammonium nitrate at non-agribusinesses.
DTN's information requests from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Idaho, Wisconsin and Maine, found no solid ammonium nitrate stored in any of those states in 2012.
DTN identified 28 solid AN stocks in Georgia. Based on 2012 data provided by the state, there was an average daily quantity of 1,726 tons stored in the state and a maximum daily quantity of 4,764 tons.
Three locations caught DTN's eye in Georgia: In total, they reported an average daily quantity of AN of 1,076 tons -- all located in areas within 1 to 3 miles of housing subdivisions and recreational areas, as shown by the latest Google Earth maps DTN was able to publicly access.
In Oregon, 2012 data shows there are 14 stockpiles of solid ammonium nitrate totaling an average daily quantity of 210 tons and a maximum daily quantity of 577 tons.
One location, in a town with fewer than 1,000 residents, reported two stockpiles that included a daily average total of 100 tons of AN and 248 tons of maximum daily storage.
Some states provided incomplete data to DTN, including Florida. Florida's records indicate there were 37 individual stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, but state officials did not state whether the materials were solid or liquid, or provide volume amounts to DTN.
Kentucky provided DTN with specific volumes of solid AN stored in 22 locations in 2012, a total of 849 tons. That includes one particular location where 23 tons of AN was surrounded by a subdivision in a town with a population of less than 60,000 residents.
Editor's note: To see DTN's past coverage, as well as updates on the West, Texas Explosion and related fertilizer stories, check out http://www.dtn.com/…
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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