The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Nation & World

July 19, 2013

Fertilizer industry grows despite safety concerns



But growth, as Moody said, doesn't come easily to small towns. So they compete.

Cronus has also found a site in Mitchell County, Iowa, and is seeking incentives from each state as it weighs options. In Illinois, lawmakers passed legislation that includes tax breaks for the newly formed company.

Since the Texas explosion, questions about the kinds of fertilizer the new plants would make and the chemicals that are used have become more important.

The volatile chemical ammonium nitrate fueled the disaster in Texas, and few of the new plants would use it. But many, including the Cronus plant, would use other potentially dangerous chemicals, like anhydrous ammonia, which can be used as a fertilizer on its own or serve as a component in other forms of fertilizer, like urea.

"People should learn from the incident at West," said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency investigating the Texas explosion. He believes rules need to be reviewed to prevent accidents.

Anhydrous ammonia is ubiquitous in farm country. It is flammable or explosive only in extreme circumstances, but an accidental leak could release a toxic chemical cloud that can drift for miles.

"You don't want to breathe it. It'll burn your lungs," Hettinger said.

Government oversight of such chemicals varies greatly from state to state.

In Illinois, the roughly 800 anhydrous storage sites are inspected annually. The six largest have few, if any, problems, said Jerry Kirbach of the state Agriculture Department's Bureau of Agricultural Products Inspection.

California requires plants be inspected once every three years.

However, in many states, including Texas, fertilizer plants are considered small polluters, and cash-strapped state environmental agencies conduct inspections only when a complaint is lodged.

Larry Robb is the emergency manager in Posey County in southern Indiana, where a firm owned in part by large Pakistani company, the Fatima Group, has proposed a $1.3 billion plant that's run into hurdles.

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