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Keith Norman, Forum News Service, Published April 21 2013

Planned fertilizer plant in ND would not make ammonium nitrate

JAMESTOWN, N.D. – While the investigation into last week’s fertilizer plant fire and explosion in West, Texas, continues, the presence of ammonium nitrate at the plant is being considered a possible cause.

This form of nitrogen is not commonly used as a fertilizer in North Dakota.

“AN is very volatile stuff,” said Andy Swenson, Extension Service farm management specialist with North Dakota State University. “The main nitrogen sources used in North Dakota are urea and anhydrous ammonia.”

Ammonium nitrate has been regulated by the federal government since it was used as a component in the bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Doug Goehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner, said ammonium nitrate is not popular as a fertilizer here because of the regulatory controls and because of its bulk.

Pure ammonium nitrate will not be produced at the CHS nitrogen plant planned for Spiritwood, N.D., according to Connie Ova, CEO of the Jamestown/Stutsman Development Corp. The Spiritwood Nitrogen Project would produce 2,200 tons per day of anhydrous ammonia, urea and UAN liquid fertilizer.

UAN liquid fertilizer is a mixture of urea and ammonium nitrate dissolved in water. The material safety data sheet for UAN does not list it as a fire risk but said users should protect themselves from exposure.

Anhydrous ammonia carries risks associated with contact or inhalation. The chemical can cause damage to the lungs leading to suffocation along with deep-freeze burns. An anhydrous ammonia leak during a train derailment in 2002 at Minot is blamed for one death and multiple injuries.

There are fewer and less severe hazards with UAN than with anhydrous ammonia or ammonium nitrate, according to material safety data sheets for the compounds.

“CHS is committed to operating safely in all communities where it does business,” wrote Annette Degnan, marketing communications director for CHS, in an email replying to a request for comments on the Texas fire and explosion.

Degnan said CHS extends sympathy to the victims and families but said it was inappropriate to comment until more details are available.

Ova said the CHS nitrogen plant will be situated on a large parcel as a matter of safety.

“They will have more than 200 acres,” she said. “That allows a buffer in the unlikely event of a problem.”

The fertilizer plant in Texas was close to a school, apartment building, retirement home and residential housing.

The Spiritwood plant will be one of the first of its type in the Upper Midwest, if it is constructed. CHS is studying accessibility of raw materials such as water and natural gas.

“This plant addresses a need in the Midwest. I really feel comfortable with the industry. Anhydrous ammonia has its challenges, but if people follow the rules, it really isn’t a safety issue,” Goehring said.

The demand for nitrogen fertilizer is higher now than ever, Goehring said. The increased acres of corn require higher levels of nitrogen than the wheat crops previously grown.

“In 2012, there were about 2 million tons of fertilizer used in North Dakota,” he said. “The majority of that is nitrogen-based fertilizer.”

The task of licensing and inspecting the roughly 300 fertilizer-handling facilities in North Dakota falls on the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Inspections occur on a rotating basis, with every facility visited at least once every three years. Mandatory replacement policies require new hoses every three years, and mobile anhydrous ammonia tanks, called nurse tanks, are inspected by the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

Local firefighters are trained to deal with situations involving nitrogen fertilizer, according to Jamestown Fire Chief Jim Reuther.

He also said the West, Texas, fire and explosion will be studied by safety experts.

“They’ll study what happened and we’ll see what they learned in future training,” he said. “It’s unfortunate people had to get hurt and killed, but it is better to learn than ignore the incident.”