Common chemical may have fueled fire in Texas fertilizer plant explosion

OTTAWA, Kan. - A chemical fertilizer used regularly by area farmers is getting broader attention than usual, as investigators in Texas try to figure out what fed last night's fatal explosion at a fertilizer plant, and what danger may still remain.

Anhydrous ammonia is a common farm fertilizer, stored as a liquid in highly pressurized tanks, and used to help grow crops like corn and wheat. It is inflammable, but in a large enough fire, experts say, the pressurized tanks that contain it could explode.

"It would take a tremendous amount of heat, right next to it to cause it to be in a state where the tank would explode," said Calvin Pearson, the assistant manager of a farm co-op in Ottawa, Kan., who has 35 years of experience working with the chemical.

The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, citing EPA documents, have reported that the facility in West, Texas, had more than 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand at the time of the fire. Farmers say that's only about a tractor-trailer's worth, and likely not enough to have caused the massive explosion alone.

Unlike its chemical cousin, ammonium nitrate, anhydrous ammonium is a gas at room temperature and normal pressure, and not used in bombs. Anhydrous ammonium is occasionally also used as a coolant in place of freon, in places like hockey rinks.

"It is dangerous," Pearson said. "A person has to be cautious about using it, but we look at it as more of an inhalation problem than a fire hazard. "

The federal government agrees. The chemical is regulated by the EPA under the clean air act, and most safety procedures and plans deal with accidental venting. Inhaled, the gaseous form of compound can cause painful burning of the lungs, difficulty breathing, and even death.

Anhydrous ammonia is also a key ingredient in the drug methamphetamine, and many of those exposed to the gas are attempting to steal it for drug production.

Farmers and the general public, Pearson said, face little danger.

"As far as immediate danger to anybody, I see none whatsoever. Anyone who is running a clean operation and conforming to the safety standards should have none whatsoever," Pearson said.

State and federal regulators oversee the production and storage of anhydrous ammonium, much of which comes to the Kansas City area from production facilities in Oklahoma.

Kansas inspects all 700 sites in the state with more than 10,000 pounds of the chemical each year. Missouri does the same with the 299 sites within its borders. Officials from the EPA and OSHA can drop in for inspections at any time as well, but spokespeople from those two federal agencies could not immediately provide documentation of recent inspections in our area.

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