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Explosion unlikely at fertilizer plants

INDEPENDENCE -- The day after a West, Texas, fertilizer plant erupted in a massive explosion in April, Bill Blair walked into Polk County Fire District No. 1 to calm any nerves about the possibility of a similar explosion in Independence.

May 21, 2013

INDEPENDENCE -- The day after a West, Texas, fertilizer plant erupted in a massive explosion in April, Bill Blair walked into Polk County Fire District No. 1 to calm any nerves about the possibility of a similar explosion in Independence.

Officials confirmed that bulk storage of ammonium nitrate, a volatile fertilizer compound, at the facility was the source for the explosion that killed 15, injured 200 and destroyed portions of the Texas town.

Ammonium nitrate was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people.

Blair is the manager at the Simplot Grower Solutions retail unit in downtown Independence. The facility sells dry and liquid fertilizers and crop protection products, none of which contain ammonium nitrate -- AN as it's known in the industry.

"He (Blair) came in at 8 o'clock that next morning. He had stuff diagrammed out from the West incident, kind of showed us what was going on," Neal Olson, Polk Fire No. 1 training/operations division chief, said. "They don't have a lot of the stuff that was down there. Their security measures are high. We've done walk-throughs; our crews are pretty familiar with their facility."

The facility -- owned by Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co. -- is strictly a retail unit and does not manufacture any products it sells. The facility has no bulk storage for its dry products -- the West, Texas, plant reported 270 tons of AN on hand last year.

Wilbur-Ellis, a San Francisco-based agricultural products company, has a manufacturing plant almost 10 miles south of downtown Independence on Suver Road.

"They bring in rail cars of material and do their thing. They call it cooking," Olson said. "They're mixing their chemicals and there's a tremendous amount of heat that's generated and they get all kinds of steam production."

One of the employees at the facility is also a volunteer with Polk Fire No. 1. The plant generally communicates with Polk Fire No. 1 before it begins to "cook."

The bill of lading, arrival and departure times for the rail cars and production times are given to the department to maintain awareness in case of an accident.

"Our company does not sell ammonium nitrate. Our safety record is outstanding," Wilbur-Ellis Corporate Communications Specialist Sandra Gharib said. "After the Oklahoma City bombing in the '90's is when we ceased selling the product."

Companies using AN that are acquired by Wilbur-Ellis are required to remove any stores of the product through sale or by transforming it into a nonexplosive material, Gharib said.

AN is only used in about 2 percent of fertilizer applications in the U.S., partly because of its volatile nature and partly that it's used in specialty applications.

"That's a very small percentage of the fertilizer used in the U.S. because it has a specialty purpose," Kathy Mathers, The Fertilizer Institute Vice President of Public Affairs Kathy Mathers said. "It really isn't the best fertilizer for all crops and all situations."

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