The disastrous fertilizer plant explosion in Texas this week should be a wake-up call for Americans. With an estimated 15 dead and more than 160 reported injured, this incident shows just how dangerous a retail fertilizer facility can be. And the Texas tragedy was made even more stunning against the backdrop of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent violence.
The explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company near Waco, Texas, was felt for miles around and registered up to 45 miles away as a minor earthquake. It should create an echoing alarm in the fertilizer industry to demand stepped-up safety precautions.
As a fourth-generation farmer, growing corn, wheat and soybeans across three counties in Southside Virginia, I cannot be oblivious to the news of death and destruction our essential business can experience. Every farmer in mass production agriculture uses either liquid nitrogen-based fertilizer or ammonia-based fertilizer, either applied by the fertilizer dealer or purchased in 50-pound bags by the farmer.
The essential question is how to make the retail fertilizer plants safer.
Over the past century, American industry has overcome the patterns of manufacturing disasters that caused widespread suffering and death for decades after the Industrial Revolution. Improvements brought by government controls and self-regulation make the lingering exceptions ever more stark and troubling. We still shudder at examples such as the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979, the Texas City refinery explosion of 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that resulted in a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Because farming has become such big business the fertilizer industry is here to stay, with growing corn acreage consuming the lion's share of its products. Few people have a real understanding of just how big the fertilizer industry really is. It is a $10 billion industry. Fertilizer has become a way of life in big production agriculture.
According to the independent research website bigpictureagriculture.com, the year 2012 saw massive expansion of nitrogen fertilizer production in the U.S. with prices for the product similarly expanding exponentially by 8 percent to $887 per ton, a large potential margin for profit. The largest nitrogen complex in North America, at Donaldsonville, La., has a capacity of five million tons a year.
The Fertilizer Institute reports there are 44 production plants in the United States, and some 6,000 retail facilities. In my hometown there is one large fertilizer and seed facility that serves roughly a 60-mile radius. I believe in competition. There should be more fertilizer facilities, each serving a smaller area. This would require a smaller amount of fertilizer in any single facility, thus making safety much more feasible and manageable.
Monsanto and other massive companies want nothing to do with either smaller quantities or competition, I am sure. As late as the 1980s, you could find a fertilizer and seed facility in just about every town in rural America. That has changed so that today many small farmers have turned to using their own organic fertilizer. Most farmers use a nitrogen-based fertilizer much like that produced in the Texas facility.
Rapidly rising profits historically have led to riskier practices in manufacturing, with government oversight straining to catch up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company in 2006 for lacking a risk management plan. We need more research on how to find a more safety-friendly way to fertilize our crops.
In order to create a real fix to the ammonia nitrite issue we must initiate collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency, United States Department of Agriculture, research-based colleges and universities and America's farmers, both large and small. We cannot afford not to do so.
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